The History of the Internet: From ARPANET to 5G

In 1957, after the Soviets’ launched Sputnik 1, the US Congress responded by creating the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA; now DARPA), whose mission it was to build satellites and develop other advanced technologies that would show up the Russians. NASA took over the space projects a year later, and ARPA used their resources on a new project: creating the first computer network.

Fast forward to 1969, and two scientists from University of California in Los Angeles succeeded in sending the first message to another computer across a network, hundreds of miles away to the Stanford Research Institute (SRI). With the simple two-letter “lo,” short for “hello” ARPANET, the first computer network, was born.

ARPANET eventually connected UCLA, SRI, UC Santa Barbara, and the University of Utah so the four universities could all share information more easily. ARPA subsequently established standard protocols for remote logins (so that all the computers on a network spoke the same language), file transfers and “e-mail.” ARPANET’s success led Congress to pass the High Performance Computing Act of 1991, which funded the development of infrastructure to support the internet we know today. 

Today, more than 4.8 billion people across the world are on the internet, watching movies, shopping for groceries, using social media, sending messages to their family friends, and saving all of their data on the Cloud. (The internet is where I’m writing this and where you’re reading it.)

George Kontos, CEO, Marshmallow Streaming

With so much information flying around all over the place, it’s incredible that we can call up any information we want on the internet and it will arrive on our computer or mobile phone screens within a few milliseconds. George Kontos, CEO of Marshmallow Streaming, told us that these digital acrobatics are performed by a combination of sophisticated networking infrastructure and robust protocols. Devices such as servers, routers and switches physically direct internet traffic where it needs to go. 

“The information to and from these devices travel along different transmission media like copper wire, fiber optic cabling and satellite links, to name a few, that stretch all over the globe,” he said. For the internet to work for billions of people at the same time, scientists had to establish some ground rules for how computers talk to each other and transfer information to each other. Internet Protocol (IP), for example, directs traffic so the right data gets to the right place, and Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) ensures that our data gets delivered in the correct order; that is, so what we send and receive makes sense.

The Internet Data Center predicts that by 2025, the internet will hold a total of 175 zettabytes of information. What is a zettabyte, you ask? Take a terabyte and multiply it by 1 trillion.

Much of that data is stored by companies that host websites and offer cloud storage, such as Google, Amazon, and Microsoft. Where do these companies store all of their data?

When you’re shopping on Amazon, the data you’re searching through is stored in vast quantities in Amazon’s data center. If you’re worried about what happens if someone breaks into a datacenter, Kontos made it very clear: “Company data centers are highly secured, and sometimes, they keep their locations a secret. Only certain people are allowed to enter a datacenter and access the data that’s stored there.” He also assured us that companies store their physical data on hard drives and databases, all of which are backed up repeatedly on more hard drives.

We asked Kontos how much pressure the rising popularity of streaming, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, has put on the internet.

“A lot,” says Kontos. “Streaming data, whether it’s music, on-demand movies and shows, live TV, or personal live broadcasts like Zoom calls and gaming sessions requires a lot of bandwidth to handle all the traffic.” 

In fact, Netflix alone accounts for 15% of all internet traffic globally. Since the beginning of the pandemic, internet usage, including streaming, has surged.

Eventually, as our lives move even more onto the internet, with streaming, cloud storage, and connected devices (have you seen the $4,000 WiFi-enabled refrigerator?), we’re going to have to figure out how to increase the amount of bandwidth available to transfer all of that data from server to computer to…refrigerator and back. “Increasing bandwidth requires updated infrastructure such as migrating from copper cabling to fiber optics, upgrading cell towers to handle faster speeds, and adding new data centers to process and store data,” Kontos expressed.

“And adding more bandwidth capabilities to areas is not enough,” he told us. As consumers of the internet, we need to upgrade our personal devices to transmit and receive larger amounts of data at fast speeds. This includes upgrading home WiFi systems, computers, gaming systems and mobile devices.

Regions around the world are installing the infrastructure needed to handle these data faster as we speak. 5G has rolled out in the US, UK, Australia, and many other countries around the world, to handle the increasing demand for internet connectivity.

“The difference between 4G and 5G comes down to speed and distance,” Kontos told us. 4G towers deliver speeds between 10-100 Mbps, while 5G towers can deliver speeds up to 500 Mbps. But, according to Kontos, upgrading our infrastructure to 5G will take more than simply swapping out the 4G components on our current cell towers with 5G ones. That’s because while 4G towers can broadcast a signal between 10 and 20 miles, current 5G radios only reach 1000 feet out. To reach the same users, more 5G radios have to be installed in new places.

“This means water towers, street lights, traffic lights, stop signs…basically anywhere a company gets permission to put a radio, they will,” explained Kontos. He also discussed that these companies will have to run cable to these radios to connect them to the rest of the internet. “This will be expensive, and require buy-in from cities, townships and municipalities to access easements and other city-owned infrastructure to pull off a telecommunications upgrade at this scale.” It’s not an easy job.

George Kontos runs Marshmallow Streaming, which builds custom streaming solutions for personal consumers. He will be giving a talk on “The Science of the Internet” on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 12noon – 1:00pm on Zoom. Register here to get the Zoom link.

Author(s)

  • Ben Marcus is a public relations specialist at CG Life and a co-editor-in-chief of Science Unsealed. He received his Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of Chicago.

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