How the foundations of the modern Internet were built

From slow and noisy to silent and super-fast 

The public Internet has come a long way from the days of screeching modems and making a cup of coffee while the web page loads. DE-CIX has been there since those early days, and has worked together with network partners around the world to optimize traffic flows and make the Internet a better place to do business.

The early public Internet was also slow and expensive, and a pretty geeky place to hang out.

For users today, the Internet is ubiquitous, wireless, it’s easy to use, accessible while you’re on the move, and it delivers the information and the content we want almost instantaneously. But it hasn’t always been like that. In order to remember just how far we’ve come in the last 25 years, let’s take a trip back in time to the beginnings of the commercial Internet, in the mid-nineties – a time when the Internet was none of the above.

What was landline again?

In the beginning, there was the landline telephone. Sound, transformed into electrical current, was sent down copper wires, and out into the world. This meant that the early Internet was a noisy place. It had to be, to get the message through. Screeches, squeaks and white noise told the early Internet user that they were connecting.

The early public Internet was also slow and expensive, and a pretty geeky place to hang out. Originally an academic network, computer scientists, physicists and engineers spent time waiting for web pages to load, dabbling with gadgets and building local networks, playing games at LAN parties, and racking up their parents’ phone bill.

So, how did the Internet transform from the loud, slow, expensive and geeky service available in 1995 to today’s ubiquitous, high-performance, and mobile tool?

Setting the foundations for the modern Internet

To create the foundations for today, the original telephone networks needed to be built. Carriers or network operators laid Internet backbone on land – a pioneering endeavor, as the founder of Core-Backbone, Daniel Maresch, remembers: “Core-Backbone began building networks in 2005. One of our first orders was for a 200Mbps connection, which resulted in many sleepless nights – but we made it happen, and the fun we had working with and for customers made it worth every minute! In the last 15 years we have built up one of the fastest-growing European carriers, with over 20 Tbps in peak traffic. In 2019, we extended our network by a total of 11,000 kilometers of dark fiber.”

For the long-haul routes, carriers even back in those days began investing in the more expensive, but more efficient fiber-optic cable technology, which could transport signals considerably further, meaning that data could be transported over long distances more reliably.

Broadband offered the incumbents a renewed competitive advantage

Meanwhile, cities – but rarely rural regions – were already well-provisioned with copper cabling from the incumbent telephone companies, and for many years, this infrastructure was sufficient for the volume of Internet traffic. Until the emergence of broadband at the turn of the millennium, Internet access was achieved by dial-up over the telephone line, and Internet service provision developed as a lucrative business model, with ISPs leasing capacity from the network owner and offering their service directly to the end consumer. Broadband, which enabled the telephone companies to offer phone calls and Internet access simultaneously, offered the incumbents a renewed competitive advantage and changed the balance once more. And the Internet became silent.

Connecting people: On land and undersea

As well as building out the Internet backbone on land, over the last several decades consortiums have joined to lay cable undersea – connecting regions, nations, continents, and over time, everything in between – and thus creating the global infrastructure for modern communications.

One such consortium is the one formed to bring international connectivity to Angola – but it has achieved so much more, as António Nunes, CEO of Angola Cables, explains: “From the moment that SACS and MONET cable systems became operational and linked to WACS, Angola Cables has had a unique value proposition, with a connectivity ring across the Atlantic region interconnecting the Americas, Africa, and Europe – providing the first and so far only option connecting Africa to the Americas directly, via SACS. This premium route offers efficiency and has the potential to change the global traffic exchange flow scenario.”

Submarine cable projects like this greatly enhance today’s connectivity options, transforming the dream of worldwide data flows into today’s reality.

From extending landlines to creating interconnection points

When we look back at how the Internet grew, it first started in the US and then made its way over to Europe. In 1995, Frankfurt was in the right place at the right time.

From this point in the connectivity value chain, Internet service providers needed to interconnect their networks to exchange data. The very first Internet Exchanges, bringing together in each case a handful of networks, were founded in the US in the early nineties, followed by several in Europe, including DE-CIX in Frankfurt, in the mid-nineties.

DE-CIX began with the interconnection of three German networks who wanted to exchange data locally rather than traversing the Atlantic twice. This improved the latency in the networks, and therefore user experience, and this motivated other networks to connect as well. The more carriers and ISPs that recognized the benefits of peering within the ecosystem at DE-CIX’s Frankfurt Internet Exchange, the more gravity developed, drawing in more and more networks, year for year.

Going east to new markets

As it developed, Arnold Nipper, Chief Technology Evangelist at DE-CIX, explains, the Internet went eastwards: “When we look back at how the Internet grew, it first started in the US and then made its way over to Europe. The American networks were, of course, a big driver for the spread of the Internet. They wanted to do business in Europe, and with the Iron Curtain coming down in 1989, they were also interested in doing business in Eastern Europe. And so in 1995, Frankfurt – being at the gateway between east and west – was in the right place at the right time to connect these markets.”

Bringing the Eastern European networks together with the American networks in Frankfurt further increased the attractiveness of the location for finding the shortest possible route for data traffic.

Developing a healthy ecosystem

As the digital economy began to take shape, the need to speed up the delivery of web pages and other content led to the formation of a new type of network in the late nineties – the content delivery network – in order to bring content as close to the Internet user as possible. These networks leased dark fiber from carriers in order to build up their own private networks, as well as peering to exchange traffic at Internet Exchanges. A healthy digital infrastructure ecosystem was developing in Frankfurt, bringing more and more networks – not only from different geographical regions, but also of a quite diverse nature – together to do business and exchange increasingly large amounts of data. The more networks that connected to DE-CIX, the stronger the attraction was for further networks to join – and interconnection gravity developed within the ecosystem.

The smartphone led to an enormous uptake in Internet services

Next step: Going mobile

The next major evolutionary step in the development of the networks that form the Internet was the beginnings of the mobile Internet. The mobile networks had evolved almost in parallel to the Internet, but in their early history the two technological concepts did not overlap. With the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, this changed almost overnight. The smartphone led to an enormous uptake in Internet services while on the move, which in turn led to increased demand on not only the mobile companies themselves and their terrestrial networks, but also the CDNs providing the content, the ISPs and carriers tasked with transporting the data, and of course the Internet Exchanges.

And as users became increasingly mobile, using small devices with limited storage capacity, the next evolutionary step in the history of networks became necessary: the beginning of the cloud era, which has brought further variety to DE-CIX’s digital ecosystems, and the emergence of many new innovative digital services.

Getting closer to the edge

With each of these evolutionary steps, the goal of networks was always to minimize latency and optimize user experience. To achieve this, networks needed to start building not only higher-capacity networks, but also in greater geographical density, and thus began the broadband roll out to bring high-speed Internet directly into the building in cities and industrial parks, as well as taking fiber to untapped regional and rural locations. In many areas of the world, this is an ongoing project involving investment from ISPs and carriers, but also from governments – to offer their companies and citizens access to services which demand high speed, low latency, and reliability.

As Wolfram Rinner, Managing Director of GasLINE, a company that has been active for many years in the build-out of fibre networks into regional and rural areas of Germany, explains, “It has become extremely easy to connect data at a high speed between distant points on the globe, by means of the fiber-optic networks and by means of DE-CIX. Here, DE-CIX has the role of the heart, and we are the blood vessels out into the regions. For the modern communication between companies, between individuals, organizations, this is what is needed for data exchange to work.”

For end users connected to these high-performance fiber networks, the Internet has thus become not only silent, but also super-fast.

Network operators have continued to invest in the expansion of their networks around the planet

Spanning the world with interconnectivity

Following the traffic flows, network operators have continued to invest in the expansion of their networks around the planet, bringing fast Internet to more and more regions through undersea, terrestrial, and even satellite-based connectivity. Interconnection has taken on truly global proportions, with more and more of the world being offered access to the advantages of digitalization with every passing year.

Without the carriers building the backbone, the Internet would not have developed as it has.

In the meantime, DE-CIX itself has become established across the globe, going eastward from the Americas to Europe, on to the Middle East, to India, and then further to South East Asia. In each region, it is the connected networks and connectivity partners that transform the DE-CIX Internet Exchanges into digital ecosystems, new digital hubs. This in turn allows those networks to exchange traffic locally, offering better user experience in each region, and reducing the costs.

New interconnection services for a new digital world

With the cloud fully established as an enterprise solution, with video streaming in high definition, video conferencing as a standard form of communication, and the rise in popularity of online gaming, with the Internet of Things bringing connectivity and intelligence to homes, cities, and factories, the smooth, fast Internet of today looks and feels very different to the clunky, noisy Internet of 1995. It is the builders and operators of the networks around the globe that make this possible. Without the carriers building the backbone, without the desire to connect continents at ever greater speed, without the local network operators bringing the fiber directly into homes and businesses, and without the networks offering content and services on top of this foundation, the Internet would not have developed as it has.

And now this Internet is changing how we communicate, how we do business, and what our expectations are, which in turn places new demands on digital infrastructure to take the next steps in the evolution of digital services. Along with user experience and reliability, security and privacy have become essential factors for modern digital enterprises.

As Dick Theunissen, Managing Director EMEA at edgeconnex says, “It is clear to me that Internet Exchanges have enormously facilitated the flow of traffic around the world. I do believe that the world and the role of key players of the global Internet infrastructure is changing, and we at EdgeConneX are part of that change – keeping traffic local. DE-CIX, with their global interconnection ecosystem and the large number of connected networks, is also adapting to the need for specialized and private interconnection – such as closed user groups – making them an ideal partner to create the future of interconnection.“

The next steps are just around the corner, with the roll-out of the new 5G mobile standard. With this, we begin to see the digital future taking shape before our very eyes. Combining mobile connectivity of this scale with digital innovations like artificial intelligence will herald a new digital age, with new demands on digital infrastructure to enable business to be conducted in a secure and trustworthy environment. Without you – our connectivity partners around the world, network builders and operators, ISPs, CDNs, and CSPs small and large – there would be no digital infrastructure on which to build this future.


More stories: