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Understanding the Internet: A Journey from Devices to Submarine Cables

From Selfies to Subsea Cables: How the Internet Really Works and What’s Next

By Karabo TsotetsiPublished about a month ago 3 min read

The internet is a ubiquitous part of modern life, but many people don't know how it actually works. From sending a simple email to streaming videos, the internet relies on a complex network of technologies and physical infrastructures. This article will demystify the journey of data across the internet, exploring how it travels from our devices through routers, across vast distances, and ultimately reaches its destination.

For most of us, our interaction with the internet starts and ends in what's often referred to as "the last mile." This is the local network area encompassing our homes, offices, and the surrounding environment. Here, our devices connect to the internet via Wi-Fi routers or cellular towers, both of which use radio waves to transmit data.

Imagine you take a selfie and decide to email it to a friend. Your phone converts the image into smaller, manageable packets of data. Each packet is like a letter in an envelope, containing headers that include information about its origin and destination. This format follows standard rules that dictate how data is sent and received over the internet.

Data within your device is represented in binary code—ones and zeros—which your phone translates into radio waves. These waves are transmitted to your router, which then converts them into signals that travel along either copper wires (as electrical pulses) or fiber optic cables (as light pulses).

The router in your home or office connects to your Internet Service Provider (ISP) through a network of wires. ISPs manage large networks and determine the most efficient route for data packets to travel. These packets are then sent to regional internet hubs—large data centers that facilitate the exchange of data between different networks.

For data to travel across continents, it moves from these regional hubs to the internet backbone—an extensive network of high-capacity, undersea cables. These cables are laid across ocean floors by specialized ships and connect various parts of the world. One such ship, the SubCom Decisive, lays and maintains these cables, ensuring they can withstand the ocean environment.

These undersea cables carry data as pulses of light through optical fibers. Despite their small size, these fibers can transmit massive amounts of data quickly and efficiently. While the cables are robust, they are not impervious to damage. Human activities, such as fishing and anchoring, are common causes of cable damage, leading to disruptions in internet service.

The extensive network of undersea cables forms a web that connects the global internet infrastructure. However, not all regions have equal access to high-speed internet. In many rural or low-income areas, laying fiber optic cables is not economically viable for ISPs. This results in limited internet access and higher costs for residents in these regions.

To address this disparity, innovative solutions like microwave internet are being developed. Microwave technology creates point-to-point networks using small dishes mounted on towers, which can transmit data over long distances with minimal loss. This technology is being used to bridge the gap in internet accessibility, particularly in underserved areas.

The rollout of 5G technology promises significantly faster internet speeds by using higher frequency waves that can carry more data. However, these waves are easily blocked by physical obstacles, requiring a dense network of antennas for effective coverage. The deployment of 5G infrastructure is costly, and while it promises to enhance internet speed and reliability, basic internet access remains a critical issue in many parts of the world.

The internet is both a virtual and physical entity, relying on a vast network of routers, cables, towers, and data centers to function. By understanding the journey of data from our devices to its final destination, we can better appreciate the complexity of this essential infrastructure. Efforts to improve internet accessibility and speed, such as the development of microwave technology and 5G networks, are crucial for ensuring that more people can benefit from the digital age.

Science

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