The internet revolution

By Duncan Maidens. Posted

Originally published in Hello World 20: Systems and networks, Jan 2023. All information true at the time of original publishing.

The internet is fundamentally a set of computing devices interconnected across the Earth and space. And how are they connected, I hear you cry? Well, the answer, of course, is the network. While the power of computers has grown according to Moore’s law (, and the programs that run on them have become ever more sophisticated, the network actually underlies this. It’s the phenomenal growth in the network’s reach, capacity, and reliability that has really driven the internet revolution.

A growing digital network

The first part of the revolution was bringing the network to end users without re-cabling the world. First, the humble telephone line was requisitioned, and we converted data into those warbling tones in a modem and sent information over the telephone network. Technological advances with digital subscriber loop (DSL) vastly improved the use of this medium. Now, we don’t think about the 60-year-old twisted pair cable carrying 30–50Mbps. A few years later, the mobile phone network landed, initially with voice calls; but the digital revolution soon had these channels transmitting data. This created the opportunity for the smart devices that are now in the hands of over half the world’s population.

The infrastructure behind all this was a growing network of wires, fibre-optic cables, and microwave and satellite links. However, the propagation delay to a satellite 22,000 miles above the Earth resulted in a delay that was too long for real-time communications, in spite of the huge cost of these devices. Physically connecting continents with cables had already been done with older technologies, and the new fibre-optic cables meant we could now send data over greater distances before needing to boost it. Specialist ships, robust cable construction, and detailed ocean floor surveys mean that we now have about 850,000 miles of undersea cables. This has brought internet access to remote places, and created high-capacity links between continents.

This growth of the digital network, and its universal reach, mean that it is now the preferred choice for all sorts of connectivity. Whereas in the past, companies used their own bespoke networks for their connectivity needs, it is now much cheaper to use the internet’s capacity. Thus, our banking, document transfers, infrastructure control, and e-commerce are all now transferred over the same network that we use to watch Netflix, surf the web, and send emails.

Rapid developments

With these networks, we routinely talk about megabits and gigabits per second, without giving a thought to the enormous improvements and developments in technology that have made these speeds possible. If the car and the infrastructure it uses had developed at the same pace as the sending of data over a network has developed, we would now be driving at about 126,000 miles per second, down a 25-billion-lane highway taking up the same space as a single-track road, and using one tank of petrol to go 24,000 miles. On top of that, there would be a zetta (10 followed by 20 zeros) number of cars on the roads in a year, and you would usually arrive at your destination with no more than a few seconds delay.

The demand on networks will only continue to grow as developers create, and consumers use, more data-hungry applications. The opportunities in networking are as vast as they are in any field, from the deep science of radio wave propagation, to undersea surveys and cable construction, to developing the hardware that connects the links in a network, to the software that runs on the hardware. What new developments will we see in the coming decades? I, for one, am excited to find out.


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