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What is the Internet

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Popular speaker on telecommunications issues and technology, Anabelle Dodd, discusses what the internet is and how it works in in easy-to-understand language.

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This chapter is from the book

In this chapter:

  • What Is the Internet?

  • Streaming—A Disruptive Technology

  • The Structure of the Internet

  • Security: Connected, Ubiquitous Networks—Vulnerable to Malicious Hackers

  • Privacy

  • The Impact of E-Commerce

  • Fostering Civic Participation and Engagement—Online Forums

  • Network Neutrality

  • The Digital Divide: Bandwidth, Skills, and Computers

  • Intranets and Extranets

The Internet is the single most important innovation of the 21st century. It’s a ubiquitous network available in much of the world, and a disruptive technology that has displaced many traditional retail businesses and services. It has created the perception that the world is smaller and changed how we communicate, shop, and spend leisure time. It has upended numerous industries, shrunk distances, led to new industries, and enabled improved communications across countries, between countries, and between continents. According to an international university student from China:

  • I am my parent’s only child, and the ability to make free video calls over the Internet to them weekly is the thing that most helps me stay in touch with them and share my experiences. Knowing that I will chat with them every week makes my parents and myself less lonely.

Technologies used in the Internet are radically changing the ways consumers access and view movies and television shows and negatively affected movie theater attendance. People can now view high-definition movies and television on their widescreen TVs in the comfort of their living rooms. Many additionally have high-end audio systems to supplement their viewing experience. Increases in the number of people using streaming, the high video and audio quality, and improvements in actual content have all precipitated large decreases in the numbers of adults that go to movie theaters and lower profits for movie theaters. Attendance at movie theaters has dropped steadily since 2016 and is expected to continue dropping as more people adopt streaming.

The Internet has radically changed how companies conduct commerce. The Internet is the main vehicle by which businesses contact customers, handle customer service, and interact with internal staff. The Internet is particularly attractive to young people, many of whom grew up with the Internet as a part of their daily lives. Web sites that are well designed and make it easy for customers to find what they need and to check out, lessen customers’ desire to actually speak with or e-mail a customer service rep. A well-designed, easy-to-use web site, an extranet, saves costs for businesses. Extranets are online e-commerce sites where consultants, partners, and customers access particular databases and services.

The Internet is not a single entity. It is made up of multiple large networks connected to each other by routers and switches and with growing amounts of capacity enabled by the following advancements: fiber-optic cabling, and more powerful servers and computer chips, all of which have resulted in higher-capacity broadband fiber-optic networks.

Streaming is a major disrupter of home entertainment and pay-TV. It has been enabled by both the Internet and home Wi-Fi. The number of people using streaming services has grown every year since Netflix first offered it in 2007 and many analysts expressed skepticism over its future. Streaming is widely available worldwide in developed countries in Asia, Europe, the Americas, and some countries in Africa. The rise of streaming has caused the bankruptcy of Blockbuster and other DVD retailers, and decreased the number of people subscribing to cable TV packages. Importantly, it’s changed the way people get their home entertainment.

Because of its acceptance, pay-TV providers now offer their own streaming services with content they create, own, or lease. For example, Verizon owns Yahoo!, and AOL, which they merged into their Oath unit, and AT&T, which owns DirecTV, purchased Time Warner, the owner of HBO. Furthermore, Comcast owns NBC and Universal, with its cache of movies and television shows. Thus, the three largest broadband providers own and create content through their subsidiaries. This results in competition between content providers Amazon, Netflix, and other streaming content companies including Facebook, and large telephone, cable TV, and satellite companies over which Amazon, Netflix, and others stream movies to homes and apartments. This often creates a situation where pay TV providers compete with the very organizations that stream movies and TV shows over their networks.

To prevent large telecoms from slowing down or blocking competitors’ content, the Obama era FCC instituted network neutrality. Under network neutrality rules, owners of broadband (pay-TV providers) are not allowed to slow down or block competitors’ content. Cable TV providers, however, lobbied for the elimination of network neutrality, stating that they should be compensated for carrying streaming traffic. The Federal Communications Commission eliminated network neutrality in 2017. However, their ruling is being adjudicated in courts and in legislatures in the United States.

Worldwide connectivity has led to the challenges of keeping networks secure and information private. Organizations, individual subscribers, and governments grapple with keeping information secure and employees’ and customers’ personal data private. Hackers know how internal networks are architected and where to look for vulnerabilities. Furthermore, malicious employees and staff errors add another layer of complexity in maintaining secure networks. Keeping enterprises 100 percent secure is almost impossible. Hacking is profitable and not often punished. Thus, hackers have a huge incentive to steal information they sell, or otherwise profit from illegal tampering with businesses’ computer data and networks. It’s an ongoing race between hackers finding new and novel ways to interrupt and steal information and to damage and hijack networks, vs. enterprises and governments keeping networks safe.

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