What Is the Internet and How Does It Work?

Learn what the internet really is, how satellite, cable, and fiber internet technology works

Ben Gran
Jul 21, 2023
bullet10 min read

What is the internet—really?

The internet is the global highway that allows digital information to travel. And the “roads” of the internet digital highway are made up of an international computer network superstructure that enables businesses, people, and governments to access it.

The internet can also be delivered via different types of technologies, which is why you get internet service providers (ISPs) with DSL internet service, cable internet service, satellite internet service, and fiber internet service. They all connect you to that major network of the internet by first connecting you to your internet provider's network, but depending on the different technology backing your internet service, you might experience slower or faster speeds.

But describing the internet simply as “an international computer network” or just a “service” doesn’t give enough credit to the massive change that it represents. It’s like describing The Beatles as “four musicians from England.” The internet may be just a giant network formed by international computer links, but it’s also one of humanity’s most important technological achievements. The internet delivers instant communication, connection, and access to information all over the planet, and makes it faster and easier for people to do business, make friends, and share ideas.  

What is the internet of things?

The internet of things, or IoT, consists of internet-connected devices and objects, also called “smart objects” or “smart devices.” It’s not the same thing as the internet, but it does rely on it.

Some examples of IoT devices and IoT applications include:

  • Connected cars: having internet connectivity in your car makes it easier to automatically keep track of your vehicle’s maintenance schedule or get help in case of an emergency.
  • Smart home devices: by connecting to the internet, people can improve home security systems, save money on home heating and cooling with smart thermostats, and automate daily household tasks like vacuuming.
  • Smart cities: city governments are using IoT devices to save on energy costs, track performance of city equipment, and detect maintenance issues before they arise.

What are the best satellite internet providers?

Provider
Price
Download Speed
Data caps
LEO or GEO
$49.99–$79.99/mo.50-100MbpsUnlimitedGEO
$69.99–$299.99/mo.12–100 Mbps60–500 GB/mo.GEO
$110.00–$500.00/mo.50–300 MbpsUnlimitedLEO

A brief history of the internet

The internet was first created in the 1960s as part of a research project for the U.S. Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). The first early version of what is now the internet, called “ARPANET,” started in 1969 and the next generation of networking standards and protocols, called TCP/IP, started to be used by ARPANET in 1983. The TCP/IP standards make it possible for computers to achieve organized, consistent, reliable data communication, and form the foundation for the modern internet.

From 1981 to 1994, the internet’s “backbone” of long-distance networks was funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, and then in 1994, the Clinton administration decided that the internet’s backbone should be maintained by the private sector, not government-run. The internet has been privately funded ever since.

How does the internet work?

The internet is kind of like an international, digital postal service, but instead of letters, it sends and receives data at the speed of light. Data takes the form of “packets,” the basic unit of data that is carried on the internet.

Packets allow large, complex digital information (everything from emails to documents to photos to streaming video and online games) to be split up into smaller pieces. Each packet contains up to 64KB of data. Sending computers are constantly in communication with recipients to see if packets arrived successfully; if not, the sending computers can send a new copy of the packet. 

That international, digital postal service needs infrastructure for all its data delivery, of course, so the internet consists of hundreds of thousands of miles of fiber-optic cables, including more than 300 submarine cables to connect countries and continents.

The internet works using these three main components:

The backbone

The backbone of the internet is made up of long-distance networks, mostly carried on fiber optic cables, that deliver data between data centers and consumers. Internet backbone providers tend to connect their networks at internet exchange points (IEPs) in major cities.

Data centers

These are the backroom supply warehouses of the internet. They consist of rooms full of servers where websites and apps are hosted and where user data is stored. Data centers can be owned by a single big company like Facebook or Google, or they can sell space on their servers to multiple smaller companies or websites.

If you’ve ever owned your own website that required you to choose a hosting plan, you’ve had your own little space on a server in a data center.

The last mile

This is where the internet actually gets connected to your home or business. Whether it’s an ISP connecting your home, or a cellular data tower giving you connectivity on the go, the “last mile” infrastructure of the internet is where most people get their daily experience of being online.     

How internet works in your life

There are a few ways of accessing and engaging with the internet that people use everyday.

World wide web

The world wide web was created in 1991 and has become one of the most popular ways to publish information online, starting with simple document-based websites connected by hyperlinks, and building over time toward more advanced images, videos, and interactive content.

Many people think “the world wide web” is the same as “the internet,” but it is not; the internet is bigger than just the web. The world wide web is just one application for accessing the internet.

The cloud

Cloud-based computing, or “cloud services,” have been a major transformation in how the internet is used in everyday life, for business and personal applications. In the early days of the internet, people usually had to save their files on their own local hard drives, and purchase their own software to be installed on their own computers.

Cloud computing makes it possible for people and companies to access more powerful, reliable, consistent computing services, treating computing as a utility that they can plug into, instead of computers being an isolated one-off “thing” that has to be purchased and maintained separately. Google Docs, Google Drive, Dropbox and iCloud are a few examples of cloud services.

Web browsers

Browsers are computer programs that let people look up, view, and interact with websites. Web browsers are vehicles for finding and accessing information online. The browser connects to websites behind the scenes to retrieve information (text, images or video) and transmit it onto your screen. Some popular web browsers include Chrome, Safari, Microsoft Edge, and Firefox. Web browsers are available for mobile phones as well as desktop and laptop computers.

Mobile apps

Many people use mobile applications as their primary way to access the internet, send email, or chat with friends online. But mobile apps are not “the internet.” These apps are self-contained, interactive digital experiences developed by a particular company or brand to reside and operate within the user’s mobile device.

The apps can often be used offline as well as online, and can have features designed to integrate with a mobile phone’s other tools and services (with the user’s permission), such as sending push notifications or accessing the phone’s contacts or camera. 

How does data move through the internet?

Data gets delivered over the internet in the form of “messages,” which are divided into smaller pieces called “packets,” the basic unit of data. Internet Protocol (IP) and Transport Control Protocol (TCP) are the basic “rules“ determining how digital information travels between computers on the internet. Think of them as the guardrails for the information superhighway.

Here is how data moves on a typical website request:

  1. You connect to the world wide web via modem or router and enter a website URL into the web browser
  2. The web browser looks up the unique Internet Protocol (IP) address for the website you entered.
  3. The web browser uses Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) to send a request to the server of the website you want to visit. This HTTP request is asking the website’s server to send your browser a copy of the website that you want to see. (This is how websites can show the same content to thousands of visitors at once; you’re all seeing copies of the same site.)
  4. If there are no server issues and your request gets approved, the website’s server sends data packets, containing website files, back to your web browser. 
  5. Your web browser automatically reassembles the data packets into the files, images, pages, and menus of the website that you requested to see.
  6. Now you can view and use the website.

Unless you are having connectivity issues or there is a problem with the website’s server, all of this data exchange happens instantly.

Where does internet come from?

The internet was developed over several decades with the help of U.S. military researchers, computer scientists, university researchers, company leaders, government officials, thinkers, developers, and other creative people. The internet comes from all of us; it is a collective human endeavor.

The internet is always “on” and ready for people to connect. Because it is a complex system, a global network of networks (not just one computer or network), the internet has strong resiliency.

Who controls the Internet?

No one “owns” the internet, and no one “runs” the internet. The internet is bigger than any one person or any single government or company. It is a decentralized system that is made up of thousands of interconnected networks and billions of users. 

Can I create my own internet?

Yes, it is possible to create your own internet by setting up your own Internet Service Provider (ISP). Sometimes this is a good solution for people who live in rural areas where internet service is limited.

But there are significant complexities and costs involved with starting an ISP. If you’re having trouble getting internet service where you live, you might want to consider a satellite internet service like Hughesnet or Viasat instead.

Can you get free internet?

The federal Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) was started to make it possible for eligible households to get free internet service with participating Internet Service Providers (ISPs) at a discounted rate. When combined with other assistance programs, it could be possible to receive free internet. As of February 7, 2024, the FCC will no longer accept new enrollments due to a lack of funding from Congress. The program will run out of funds by April 2024 unless there is action from Congress. 

Can the internet be shut down?

Some countries’ governments have shut down the Internet or controlled access to certain Internet sites and applications within their countries’ borders, such as China’s “Great Firewall.” Between 2016 and 2021, internet shutdowns happened in 74 countries.2

What are the 3 types of internet?

The main three types of internet service that most people in America use today are cable, fiber, and satellite internet. These are generally the fastest, most cost-effective ways for people to connect to the internet for home and business purposes.

DSL (high-speed internet delivered via phone lines) and dial-up internet technology still exist and are used by some internet users, especially in rural areas where faster types of internet service might be less common. Let’s take a closer look at how the three main types of internet service work.

How does satellite internet work?

Satellite internet service is delivered by networks of satellites, orbiting the Earth in space. It works kind of in the same way as satellite TV service: these satellites beam a wireless internet signal down through the atmosphere to reach customers’ home satellite dishes. Some satellite internet services use satellites that are in geostationary orbit (GEO), while others use Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

Because the satellites are high up in space, their internet service doesn’t have to rely on the typical land-based system of cables and phone lines. This means that satellite internet often has a wider reach and is more reliable than other types of internet. Depending on the network, satellite internet can reach any home or any place on Earth.

How does cable internet work?

Cable internet works in the same way as cable TV service: the internet connection gets delivered via coaxial cable and is carried on the cable provider’s network. Cable TV only takes up part of the cable network’s bandwidth, so that leaves room to transmit internet data in the same network of cables.

Cable internet service is delivered to a cable modem within your home, which you can then connect to your computer or to a router for Wifi access. Many cable internet providers offer discount bundle packages where you can get cable TV along with your internet service.  

How does fiber-optic internet work?

Fiber-optic internet service, also called “fiber,” is another option for high-speed broadband internet. With fiber-optic internet service, the data is transmitted via fiber-optic cables. These cables use special glass so the signals can travel at 70% of the speed of light.3

This can deliver significantly higher speeds than other forms of internet service. For example, CenturyLink Fiber claims to offer download speeds of up to 940 Megabits per second (Mbps). 

Fiber internet is fast, but it is not available in most areas because the technology is expensive—although ISPs are working to expand their fiber networks. Fiber internet also requires some special equipment, such as an optical network terminal and a fiber-ready router (or “residential gateway”).

But if fiber is available where you live, and the price is right, it’s probably the fastest internet service you can get for your home or business.

Internet FAQ

When was the internet invented?

The internet was established in 1969 by the U.S. military as “ARPANET,” the world wide web was invented in 1991, and all commercial use limitations on the internet were removed in 1995, making it possible for the internet to grow and develop into what it is today.4 

When was the internet invented for the public?

It’s hard to pinpoint a specific date, but 1994 was the year when the Clinton administration handed over the backbone of the internet to the private sector (instead of being government-run), and 1995 opened up new commercial uses of the internet.

Are there 7 keys to the Internet?

The internet’s domain name system, or DNS, is controlled by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). ICANN has created a select international team of 14 internet security experts, or “keyholders,” who gather 4 times per year for “key signing ceremonies” where they combine their individual keys to create a new master security key to protect the internet’s DNS.5

These ceremonies are performed in public and are livestreamed online so anyone can watch the proceedings.6 Without the keyholders’ regular meetings and teamwork, the internet could truly break; internet URLs might no longer work, and internet users would be vulnerable to a wide range of security attacks.

Who are the 7 people who can turn off the Internet?

The ICANN keyholders do not have the power to “turn off” the internet, and they do not want to do so. Instead, they work together as an international team with a rigorous, safeguarded process to make sure the internet’s DNS protocols are secured and protected. Think of them as a team that works together to generate a new secure password for the internet.

Endnotes

  1. White House, “Get Internet: Claim Your Affordable Connectivity Program Benefit,” Accessed February 9, 2023.
  2. United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Internet shutdowns: UN report details ‘dramatic’ impact on people’s lives and human rights,” June 23, 2022. Accessed February 9, 2023.
  3. CenturyLink, “What is fiber internet?” Accessed February 9, 2023.
  4. HP, “How does the internet work: a step-by-step pictorial,” May 24, 2019. Accessed February 9, 2023.
  5. James Ball, The Guardian, “Meet the seven people who hold the keys to worldwide internet security,” February 28, 2014. Accessed February 9, 2023.
  6. ICANN, “ICANN conducts its first key ceremony of 2022 to secure the internet,” February 15, 2022. Accessed February 9, 2023.
Ben Gran
Written by
Ben Gran