The Internet gets physical

Molly Wood Jul 2, 2012

Like a lot of us, writer Andrew Blum spends part of each day tooling around the web. One day, Blum’s home connection slowed to a crawl. A squirrel chewed through the wiring outside. That vandalizing rodent got Blum thinking. Practically all of us rely on the Internet in everyday life.

But how does the physical system that brings us Hulu and the Huff Post actually work? Blum gives answers in his new book, “Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet.”  You may be surprised at how simple it can be.

Andrew Blum: I went and visited the place called the Landing Station, that’s essentially a lighthouse. It’s the place where the light that transmits information across the ocean comes from. And it’s about the size of a large, suburban house tucked away, relatively inconspicuously, in a seaside neighborhood. And literally, in the corner of the room, there’s a cable that comes out of the ground, and in the place that I visited in Cornwall, in England, it says “AC 1 Cable to U.S.A.,” and that’s it. That’s the cable that goes to America.

Smith: In my house I have a cable connection that brings in my Internet and my cable TV. I’ve got plumbing. I’ve got electricity. And as long as the stuff works, I really don’t care where it leads to. Now, a squirrel ate your Internet and that piqued your curiosity, but why should I care about what’s behind that plug in the wall out there in the Internet world?

Blum: Well at the moment, we don’t even know that the Internet has parts and pieces. That’s the first step in how we might have better parts and pieces, and it seems as if we’re on the brink of a new era in home Internet in the U.S. We’re going to have (usage) caps and metered billing. It’s no longer going to be this all-you-can-eat buffet. Instead, the cable companies are going to say, “Oh, you’re only allowed 100 gigabytes of data per month.” Or, maybe it will be a sort of cell phone thing, where you can download more after midnight and that doesn’t count. At the moment, though, we’re sort of living in our own kind of cloud without any concern other than we are online.

Smith: And the point is that no one entity or even 10 entities owns the Internet. It’s owned by… what? A thousand? A million?

Blum: Well, surprisingly few. I would say there are about 300 or 400 Internet networks that are the biggest pieces. And of course, in the U.S., the biggest pieces are getting very big. I’m thinking in particular of Comcast and Google. But the whole enterprise depends on the autonomous actions of independently-owned networks, and as one network gets a lot bigger, that dynamic starts to shift pretty dramatically.


Making batteries smaller is the holy grail for people designing new mobile devices. Researchers at Rice University in Texas may have a breakthrough. Batteries you can paint onto a device. A typical battery is made up of layers of individual cells that convert chemical energy into electrical energy. Instead of stuffing those cells into a round tube — like a double-A battery — researchers at Rice painted layer after layer of cells onto objects like a coffee mug. And it worked.

Grad student Neelam Singh helped lead the project and says, “If we can make different shapes, or different sizes of the batteries, not the conventional rectangular or cylindrical shapes of the battery, we can stack batteries very efficiently.”

So let’s say you wear a bracelet that’s actually a flexible computer screen — which is also in the works — then the battery can be painted on the back. And what color? Black, naturally. Goes well with evening wear or togs for the beach.

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