A month or so ago, the statements of Alaska Senator, Ted Stevens (who heads the committee in charge of Internet regulation) made the rounds. Specifically, he said:
They want to deliver vast amounts of information over the Internet. And again, the Internet is not something you just dump something on. It’s not a big truck. It’s a series of tubes.
And if you don’t understand those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and it’s going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material, enormous amounts of material.
Now this made for easy pickings (see here and here). But even these seemed to agree that the Internet was not a dump truck. Well, just for amusement sake and needless promotion of controversy, I am going to speculate here whether this is the case using my own potted understanding of modern networking technology.
Let’s start at the tubes part. Stevens is likening the Internet to a set of pipes. It is not an uncommon style of analogy and is similar to Al Gore’s ‘Information Superhighway.’ These views have in common that the Internet is like a transportation network and that broadband is a service that allows for data to be transported from A to B more quickly.
Speed is the visible consequence of broadband but to liken data transportation to physical transportation can lead to serious misapplications of what broadband delivers. Data transportation can arise in many forms from direct voice communication, to conversion to a physical form and transported, to traditional telephony and then to the set of technologies that make up the Internet. But where the Internet fundamentally differs from other forms is the way data is transported. It is broken down (into packets), sent on its way, and then reassembled. It is a combination of transportation speed, storage and processing.
To see this, compare the sending and receiving of a picture by fax to the viewing of a picture over the Internet. Fundamentally, the same service has occurred. However, the fax transmission opens a dedicated line between receiver and sender and then downloads the picture in order. The Internet does something different. It breaks the picture down into bits and beams each bit on a merry chase to arrive at the user’s computer. It also sends along reassembly instructions. The computer then waits for a coherent set of pieces to arrive and reassembles the picture. If this occurs quickly it is because each bit can find its way quickly (that is the speed issue) but also that the computer can assemble it quickly. In this respect, there is much of a ‘dump’ truck aspect to the Internet as a ‘tube’ aspect. The ‘tubes’ dump the material at the computer’s door and the computer works to make use of it.
So there you have it, maybe the Internet is a dump truck. Ta da.