Have you ever wondered how the internet actually works? When you’re chatting on your smartphone with Grandma or playing an online video game or sending an email to a friend, the Internet can feel like magic. Most of us know how to use the internet without actually understanding how it works. Sort of like electricity in your home, you use it every day but may not understand the mechanics behind it and if the electric grid is difficult to understand then the internet must be impossible. Right? Wrong. In the next few minutes I’ll put you in the top 10 percent of people who understand how the internet actually works.
Whenever most people think of the Internet, a bubble cloud comes to their mind. The Internet is not a bubble cloud, even in the new age of cloud computing. The whole fuzzy cloud picture was created by people more concerned about job security than education.
What is Internet?
The Internet is a wire, buried in the ground. It might be fiber optics, copper or occasionally beamed to satellites or through cell phone networks. But the Internet is simply a wire. The Internet is useful because two computers connected directly to this wire can communicate.
A server is a special computer connected directly to the Internet and web pages are files on that server’s hard drive. Every server has a unique Internet Protocol address or IP address, just like a postal address. IP addresses help computers find each other but since 188.8.131.52, it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, we also give them names like google.com or facebook.com. So this is how it works.
Your computer at home is not a server because it’s not connected directly to the Internet. Computers you and I use every day are called clients because they’re connected indirectly to the Internet through an Internet service provider.
So let’s go deep inside the internet and take a look at what’s actually happening.
Internet traffic is divided into parcels of data called packets. The packets split apart when you hit send and come back together when they arrive at their destination. These packets are converted into pulses of light to radio signals that travel through a cable to a device called a router. The router sends the packets along to their destination. It operates something like a conveyor belt sorting luggage at an airport. When there’s no congestion, these packets move to their destination without difficulty or delay.
But what happens when there are too many packets moving through a junction at a given moment in time?
Let’s say an email hits a bottleneck, random packets will drop and try again a few milliseconds later when it’s their turn at the junction. Your email may be delayed a second or two but for most of us that’s no big deal. But what happens when real-time traffic like a video chat or voice call hits the same bottleneck. If packets are dropped, you may be disconnected, the voice may be horrible, the video may be chicusuri, and there may be a delay or echo. The experience is incredibly frustrating and this is even more of a challenge when speed matters. Like with fast paced stock trading or online video gaming as well as with new applications like real-time health monitoring, if the packets aren’t reassembled at their destination just at the right time just in the right order the applications won’t work properly.
Solution to the above problem
Fortunately there’s a way to avoid the vast majority of these problems and that’s through scheduling of Internet traffic, by labeling packets and making the sorting devices understand which packets need to go where and when everyone’s experience gets better. Scheduling of Internet traffic allows for real-time applications to be routed first, while other applications can be sorted as space becomes available. Scheduling also opens possibilities for consumers who want specialized experiences, like fast paced stock trades or online video gaming that can be provided without impacting the experience of other consumers.
Now is there a role for government in all of this?
Absolutely to stop or punish bad acts, blocking of legal content is wrong and anti-competitive behavior should be investigated by regulatory authorities. But without the ability to schedule which helps prioritize traffic when necessary, our internet experience won’t be as good as it can be. Policymakers are deciding how flexible or restrictive net neutrality regulations will be. The fact is not all bits are created equal if we treat them that way, consumers will pay the price and they won’t have access to innovative new technologies and services that have the power to improve our internet experience.