The Geography of Cyberspace

The Virtual and the Physical

How to Cite

Tseng, E., & Eischen, K. (2003). The Geography of Cyberspace: The Virtual and the Physical. M/C Journal, 6(4).
Vol. 6 No. 4 (2003): Fibre
Published 2003-08-01

The Virtual and the Physical

The structure of virtual space is a product of the Internet’s geography and technology. Debates around the nature of the virtual — culture, society, economy — often leave out this connection to “fibre”, to where and how we are physically linked to each other. Rather than signaling the “end of geography” (Mitchell 1999), the Internet reinforces its importance with “real world” physical and logical constraints shaping the geography of cyberspace. To contest the nature of the virtual world requires understanding and contesting the nature of the Internet’s architecture in the physical world.

The Internet is built on a physical entity – the telecommunications networks that connect computers around the world. In order to participate on the Internet, one needs to connect to these networks. In an information society access to bandwidth determines the haves from the have-nots (Mitchell 1999), and bandwidth depends upon your location and economics. Increasingly, the new generation Internet distributes bandwidth unevenly amongst regions, cities, organizations, and individuals. The speed, type, size and quality of these networks determine the level and nature of participation available to communities. Yet these types of choices, the physical and technical aspects of the network, are the ones least understood, contested and linked to “real world” realities.

The Technical is the Political

Recently, the US government proposed a Total Information Awareness surveillance system for all digital communications nationally. While technically unworkable on multiple fronts, many believed that the architecture of the Internet simply prevented such data collection, because no physical access points exist through which all data flows. In reality, North America does have central access points – six to be exact – through which all data moves because it is physically impossible to create redundant systems. This simple factor of geography potentially shapes policies on speech, privacy, terrorism, and government-business relations to name just a few.

These are not new issues or challenges, but merely new technologies. The geography of infrastructure – from electricity, train and telephone networks to the architectures of freeways, cities and buildings – has always been as much social and political as technical. The technology and the social norms embedded in the network geography (Eischen, 2002) are central to the nature of cyberspace. We may wish for a utopian vision, but the hidden social assumptions in mundane ‘engineering’ questions like the location of fibre or bandwidth quality will shape virtual world.

The Changing Landscape of the Internet

The original Internet infrastructure is being redesigned and rebuilt. The massive fibre-optic networks of the Internet backbones have been upgraded, and broadband access technologies – cable modem, Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) and now wireless Wi-Fi – are being installed closer to homes and businesses. New network technologies and protocols enable the network to serve up data even faster than before. However, the next generation Internet architecture is quite different from the popular utopian vision described above. The Internet is being restructured as an entertainment and commerce medium, driven by the convergence of telecommunications technologies and commercialization. It is moving towards a broadcast model where individual consumers have access to less upstream bandwidth than downstream, with the symmetry of vendor and customer redesigned and built to favor content depending on who provides, requests and receives content.

This Internet infrastructure has both physical and logical components – the telecommunications networks that comprise the physical infrastructure and the protocols that comprise the logical infrastructure of the software that runs the Internet. We are in the process of partitioning this infrastructure, both physical and logical, into information conduits of different speeds and sizes. Access to these conduits depends on who and where you are. These emerging Internet infrastructure technologies – Broadband Access Networks, Caching and Content Delivery Networks, Quality of Service and Policy Protocols – are shaped by geographical, economic and social factors in their development, deployment and use.

The Geography of Broadband

These new broadband networks are being deployed initially in more privileged, densely populated communities in primary cities and their wealthy suburbs (Graham, 2000). Even though many have touted the potential of Wi-Fi networks to bring broadband to underserved areas, initial mappings of wireless deployment show correlation between income and location of hotspots (NYCWireless, 2003).

Equally important, the most commonly deployed broadband technologies, cable modem and ADSL, follow a broadcast model by offering more downstream bandwidth than upstream bandwidth. Some cable companies limit upstream bandwidth even further to 256 Kbps in order to discourage subscribers from setting up home servers. The asymmetry of bandwidth leads to asymmetry of information flows where corporations produce information and users content.

Internet Infrastructure: Toll Roads and the Priority of Packets

The Internet originally was designed around ‘best effort’ service: data flows through the networks as packets, and all packets are treated equally. The TCP/IP protocols that comprise the Internet’s logical infrastructure (Lessig, 101) govern how data is transferred across the physical networks. In the Internet’s original design, each packet is routed to the best path known, with the transport quality level dependent on network conditions.

However, network congestion and differing content locations lead to inconsistent levels of quality. In order to overcome Internet “bottlenecks”, technologies such as content caching and Quality of Service (QoS) protocols have been developed that allow large corporate customers to bypass the public infrastructure, partitioning the Internet into publicly and privately accessible data conduits or throughways. Since access is based on payment, these private throughways can be thought of as the new toll roads of the Internet.

Companies such as Akamai are deploying private ‘content delivery’ networks. These networks replicate and store content in geographically dispersed servers close to the end users, reducing the distance content data needs to traverse. Large content providers pay these companies to store and serve their content on these networks. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) offer similar services for internal or hosted content.

The Internet’s physical infrastructure consists of a system of interconnected networks. The major ISPs’ networks interconnect at Network Access Point (NAPs) the major intersections of the Internet backbone. Congestion at these public intersection points has resulted in InterNAP building and deploying private network access points (P-NAPs). Akamai content delivery network (Akamai, 2000) and InterNAP’s P-NAPs (InterNAP, 2000) deployment maps reveal a deployment of private infrastructure to a select group of highly-connected U.S. cities (Moss & Townsend, 2000), furthering the advantage these ‘global cities’ (Graham, 1999) have over other cities and regions.

QoS protocols allow ISPs to define differing levels of service by providing preferential treatment to some amount of the network traffic. Smart routers, or policy routers, enable network providers to define policies for data packet treatment. The routers can discriminate between and prioritize the handling of packets based on destination, source, the ISP, data content type, etc.

Such protocols and policies represent a departure from the original peer-to-peer architecture of data equality with ‘best-effort’. The ability to discriminate and prioritize data traffic is being built into the system, with economic and even political factors able to shape the way packets and content flow through the network. For example, during the war on Iraq, Akamai Technologies canceled its service contract with the Arabic news service Al Jazeera (CNET, 2003).

Technology, Choices and Values

To address the social choices underpinning seemingly benign technical choices of the next generation Internet, we need to understand the economic, geographic and social factors guiding choices about its design and deployment. Just as the current architecture of the Internet reflects the values of its original creators, this next generation Internet will reflect our choices and our values.

The reality is that decisions with very long-term impacts will be made with or without debate. If any utopian vision of the Internet is to survive, it is crucial to embed the new architectures with specific values by asking difficult questions with no pre-defined or easy answers. These are questions that require social debate and consensus. Is the Internet fundamentally a public or private space? Who will have access? What information and whose information will be accessible? Which values and whose values should form the basis of the new infrastructure? Should the construction be subject to market forces alone or should ideas of social equity and fairness be embedded in the technology?

Technologists, policy makers (at both national and local levels), researchers and the general public all have a part in determining the answers to these questions. Policymakers need to link future competition and innovation with equitable access for all citizens. Urban planners and local governments need to link infrastructure, economic sustainability and equity through public and public-private investments – especially in traditionally marginalized areas. Researchers need to continue mapping the complex interactions of investment in and deployment of infrastructure across the disciplines of economics, technology and urban planning. Technologists need to consider the societal implications and inform the policy debates of the technologies they build. Communities need to link technical issues with local ramifications, contesting and advocating with policymakers and corporations. The ultimate geography of cyberspace will reflect the geography of fibre. Understanding and contesting the present and future reality requires linking mundane technical questions with the questions of values in exactly these wider social and political debates.

Author Biographies

Emy Tseng


Kyle Eischen