The Internet has become so entrenched in our daily lives that most people never reflect on the technological feats that allow it to happen. Around 85 percent of Americans report using the Internet daily, and millions of people rely on internet functions for their livelihood. Our economy is dependent upon the internet and a global connection, with an estimated $27.5 trillion of electronic money in circulation. The only way you are reading this is on a screen right now. The Internet appears to be this ethereal collection of websites and data that exists outside of the physical world, but it’s not. The internet is made up of physical infrastructure projects that cost billions of dollars to keep the world running.
When you open up a computer and type in “Aii.org” in a browser, you are accessing a website that is hosted on a server somewhere. Every part of the Internet is hosted on physical servers that exist somewhere in the world, often massive data centers that house millions of terabytes of data. A server is a simple computer solely for storing data. There are over 500,000 data centers across the world, some of them huge structures with millions of servers owned by tech giants such as Microsoft, Apple, Meta, and others. Data centers are the brains of the Internet, storing terabytes of data each second. In 2021, there were 209 new data center deals in the U.S. that have an aggregate value of $48 billion. Global IT data center spending is expected to be over $200 billion in 2023.
Advances in technology in recent years have made data storage larger and cheaper than ever. Data center owners make money by leasing out space on their servers to third parties. Website owners pay money to host their website or data on a server, and the continual need for more storage means that new data centers are built all the time. Data centers provide a steady flow of income for owners, but also require a lot of electricity and have huge start-up costs. Servers need power to run and need to be kept cool, like any computer. Some of the largest data centers require over 100 MW capacity, enough to power 80,000 homes. Globally it is estimated that data storage uses around 1 percent of all power consumption.
Tech companies have advertised storing data on the ‘cloud’, where it can be accessed from any device without physically storing it on a personal computer. The name ‘cloud’ makes us think that the data is up in the air, always moving and never physically in one location. In reality, the ‘cloud’ is dozens of massive high-capacity data centers. To ensure reliability, data from the ‘cloud’ and important websites are hosted on multiple servers at different data centers. This ensures that if an outage occurs, data can still be accessed. ‘Cloud’ providers made up the majority of new data center spending, which could reach $350 billion worldwide by 2026.
If data centers are the brains of the internet, then cables are the nerves. We like to think of the Internet as ‘wireless’, but nearly everything that makes the internet function is wired.
Individual devices like laptops and smartphones are capable of communicating with a network (Wi-Fi or cellular network), but the routers that they connect to are almost always connected by wires. The Internet is often called a “network of networks”. A Wi-Fi network might connect to a service provider network that connects to a website domain network that connects to a data center network that connects to a specific website. The technical aspect of this is beyond most ordinary people, but this type of networking allows a Google search to take a tenth of a second.
Modern internet cable connections use fiber-optic cables, small cables that can transfer incomprehensibly huge amounts of data at 69 percent the speed of light. Household connections to routers typically use less powerful, smaller network cables, but the internet highways use fiber-optic.
Fiber-optic cables can stretch across land, be buried underground, or stretch across the bottom of entire oceans. A fiber-optic cable no thicker than a common garden-hose can transfer 24.2 terabits of data per second across the Atlantic Ocean, millions of times more powerful than a typical household Wi-Fi connection.
Submarine internet cables are extremely important for global connectivity. Hundreds of these cables crisscross ocean floors around the world. The tiny fiber-optic cables are encased in many layers of protection to prevent damage, as cables are near-impossible to repair. Anchors, fishing nets, undersea landslides, and earthquakes can all be dangerous to submarine cables.
In 2018, the Marea internet cable was completed, linking the U.S. to Spain with a 4,100-mile long fiber-optic cable at a cost of $160 million. The project was co-funded by Microsoft and Meta (formerly Facebook). Most of the cables are owned by multiple companies, a mix of tech giants and telecommunications corporations. Cable owners make money by charging fees to use the network, typically paid for by internet-service providers. Submarine fiber-optic cables global market share is expected to reach $48 billion per year by 2030.
Many have raised security concerns with internet cables, particularly after an internet outage in the Middle East in 2022 was caused by a cut cable in Egypt. Famed NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden provided evidence that the British spy agency GHGQ was monitoring all traffic from 200 fiber optic cables, and that the NSA had a similar program. Even the Russian and U.S. militaries likely have submarines that can mess with undersea cables. The United States’s power struggle with China has already led to conflict over submarine cables. However, experts maintain that hacking and cybersecurity are more likely threats to the internet, and advanced militaries have satellite technology in case of outages.
Back on land, the physical infrastructure of the Internet can also be threatened by regular excavation work. Tens of thousands of miles of internet cables run under our feet and home projects and construction activity regularly sever them when digging. This is a rare moment when the Internet becomes more tangible for many people – when their neighbor cuts their connection when planting a tree.
The Internet is a vast and wondrous place with seemingly endless possibilities, but it is important to remember that it could not exist without physical infrastructure. Billions of dollars have been spent building up this infrastructure so that the average person can have access to information from across the globe. Data centers allow us to store documents that can be accessed on any computer with a login, and buried and submarine cables allow us to visit international websites in less than a second.
The infrastructure of the Internet is largely unknown to the average American, but it is essential in the modern economy, just as important as the roads we drive on.
Written by Owen Rogers, Public Policy Intern
The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.