Information Superhighway


Whether it’s a news article, a tweet or a video – we’ve all said it.

Whether we’re on a bus, at a cafe, waiting for a train – we’ve all said it.

Whether we’re alone or with a friend – we’ve all said it.

‘Grr! Why is the internet being so slow!?’

It’s only been around for 24 years, yet most of us now consider the web to be an essential part of our lives. When it goes wrong, it can almost feel like a violation of our basic human needs and our instant reaction is to become frustrated and angry.

However, behind the scenes, it is truly an astonishing system so here’s a story to help explain a little of how it works.

A friend sends you a text message. You open the message and see a link titled ‘Kittens in cups‘. Naturally, you click on it without hesitation.

Immediately the internet begins its magic. Your phone creates a http request (a bit like a letter with a self-addressed envelope), encrypts it, converts the information to binary (a big string of 1s and 0s), turns the binary into radio waves and sends the message through the air to the nearest router.

The router decrypts the information and searches through its database to see if it recognises the address on your letter. If it does, it passes it in the right direction, if not, it asks a bigger server called a DNS (think of a big phone book). When the address is found, the request then travels through a massive network of cables for hundreds and hundreds of miles. For some of the journey the message is electrical, for other parts its converted into light as it hops from router to router across the globe trying to find the quickest route.

When it reaches the address it was looking for, the server at the other end performs a series of checks on the request before grabbing the image of the kittens ready to send to you. However, sending the image all in one go wouldn’t be an efficient method so the image is split up into hundreds of tiny packets with the destination address stamped onto the top of each one. These packets travel independently across the internet, some taking one direction, some taking another (wherever they is low traffic and fast data speeds) before they all end up at your wireless router.

As each packet comes in, your router encrypts them again before sending them to your phone through the air as radio waves. Your phone then collects each packet of information and assembles them in the right order to create the image.

Let's say image of the kitty is 60kb (that's quite small these days) but in terms of data 60kb means it is made of around 480,000 bits of information. If you tried to write this collection of 1s and 0s down on a long strip of paper, the paper would need to be around a mile long!

So the next time you’re waiting for an image to load, or a video to buffer and you feel the anger starting to rise, take that time to think about the truly mind-boggling process which is going on behind the scenes and maybe you’ll come away thinking the internet isn’t so bad after all.