Networked Nation
The Landscape of the Internet in America

3358 An Equinix data center in Ashburn, Virginia, at the heart of the cloud. CLUI photo

NETWORKED NATION: THE Landscape of the Internet in America was presented at the Center’s Los Angeles exhibit space in late 2013, examining the physical internet in the USA. The project looked at the roots, vines, and concrete of information-space, from AT&T through NSFnet, and early commercial network access points in places like Tysons Corner, Virginia. It ended with a survey of the dedicated data centers being built in office parks and remote locations by the major internet companies today, to house the cloud.

3359 The first transcontintental telephone line was completed when the last splice was made, at the border of Utah and Nevada, in the town of Wendover, in 1914. A monument with an old telephone pole marks the spot, outside the Montego Bay casino. CLUI photo
When commercial and individual access to digital communication networks opened in the early 1990s, with the emergence of the World Wide Web, navigated through things like AOL and the Mosaic browser, it dematerialized the information space that had been enabled by the desktop publishing revolution. The physical flurry of print–newsletters, magazines, reports–sublimated into their genetic code.

This endlessly growing line of code, which now includes the majority of communications, visualizations, and data, can be seen in aggregate as the liquid flow of digital information, flooding over the landscape, following channels and rivulets that are physical wires, laid first by the phone companies.

3360 An office building at 8100 Boone Boulevard in Tysons Corner, Virginia, was the original Metropolitan Area Exchange for the eastern United States, with half the nation’s internet traffic passing through it in the early 1990s. Today it is still a well-connected data center in the region of the Dulles Corridor, the highest concentration of internet infrastructure in the nation. CLUI photo
Commercial Internet Nodes
Though the early open internet was located on servers all over the place, connected to phone lines through modems, and to each other within buildings with routers, there were a few places where it converged and collected, where concentrations of the network linked to thick parts of the communications backbone.

Server rack space is desirable close to these points, such as meet me rooms, where main fiber lines converge, often in buildings near or at phone company central offices (COs) in major metropolitan centers, especially in Manhattan, Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, and the Dulles Corridor of Virginia, near the Pentagon, where the internet was born. These hubs emerged early on, and remain important gateways for the communications web of the world, even as it spreads further outwards.

3361 The Manchester Cable Station in Northern California is one of a few dozen trans-oceanic fiber optic cable landing stations along the East and West Coasts. CLUI photo
Fiber Line Proliferation
Fiber optic cables carry the load of digital communications across the city, the country, and the world. These are the wires of the wired world (although the last mile–to the door of the consumer–is mostly still either a copper phone line carrying DSL, a coaxial cable owned by the cable company, or a satellite dish on a roof or apartment balcony).

When the dot-com bubble grew in the late 1990s, so did anticipation for the need for bandwidth. Dozens of communication infrastructure companies formed and ballooned in acquisition frenzies. Some even laid tens of thousands of miles of fiber, then collapsed in spectacular bankruptcies in 2001 and 2002, including the biggest of them, WorldCom and Global Crossing. Today the internet is moving into the glut of bandwidth created ten years ago and new lines are being installed across the country.

The U.S. is connected to the world primarily through a few dozen points on the East and West Coast of the country where fiber-optic submarine cables emerge from the sea floor and connect to the inland network. Most of these cables were laid during the telco boom, between 1997 and 2002. A few cables across the Pacific have been laid since then, including the Unity/EAC-Pacific, largely funded by Google, which lands in Redondo Beach, California, and terminates at the One Wilshire building in downtown Los Angeles.

3362 The Echostar satellite facility in Gilbert, Arizona, is one of the company’s largest uplink sites. Echostar operates several earthstations in the USA for its network of communication satellites, serving video and data transmission customers. CLUI photo
Satellites and Cable Television
Not all national and international internet traffic is handled by fiber optic systems. Some of it travels via satellite and coaxial cables, systems primarily developed and operated by television broadcast and cable companies. Television has been a major driver for expanding telecommunication networks. Even the 1950s AT&T long line network carried television content as well as voice and data.

Today’s cable TV company systems are increasingly used for data traffic, and are likely to be more so as the line between video and data continues to blur. Cable companies like Time Warner and Comcast provide many consumers with the last-mile connection to the internet, and are now the largest telcom companies, behind only Verizon and AT&T.

Since the first communications satellite launched in 1962 (AT&Ts Telstar 1), television has favored space-based relay systems. Despite their lower bandwidth, the continuous stream of video information, transmitted over great distances, has been a better match for the medium. Satellites parked in space and rotating with the earth receive content from powerful uplink facilities and then beam it back to earth, generally non-directionally. (The signal can be collected anywhere on the ground with line of sight of the satellite).

This is done at cable company head-end facilities, where the signals are captured by parabolic collectors, and transmitted regionally via their cable network and by regional fiber networks. In the case of direct broadcast companies like DishTV, the signal is received directly by the end user through small dishes outside attached to consumer modems and cable boxes.

3363 Digital Realty data center (next to an analog public storage facility) in Santa Clara, California, the biggest cluster of data centers in Silicon Valley. CLUI photo
Dedicated Data Centers
While data centers have tended to collect in pre-existing, partially occupied downtown buildings, near telco fiber connection points, a new type of structure is now spreading across the land: buildings wholly dedicated to housing digital data. These dedicated data centers exist in converted or rebuilt buildings in suburban office parks, and, increasingly, are built from scratch.

They are built by the companies dominating the internet now, like Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft. They are also being built by data center developers, like Sabey, CoreSite, Digital Realty Trust, and Equinix.

Data centers are clustering around one another in suburbs and in remote locations (instead of downtowns, near their customers), to take advantage of inexpensive real estate, but also for proximity to sources of electrical power and fiber bandwidth.

It’s a new kind of physical information architecture: windowless boxes, often with distinct design features such as an appliqué of surface graphics or a functional brutalism, surrounded by cooling systems. A building that is a machine, tended by a small staff of technicians and security guards.

This is likely the future of the physical internet, where information storage is like an electrical utility, plugged into hydropower, cooled by river water, and connected by long wires to users around the world. Not a power plant, but a data plant.

3364 Terramark Data Center at 2970 Corvin Street, in Santa Clara, California, one of the dozens of new data plants in the city. CLUI photo


Networked Nation: The Landscape of the Internet in America was supported by a grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.