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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Of the Internet and Glasgow

Way back in 1991 we discovered that our new broadband network was capable of being used as a local area network (LAN). That means we were able to establish communications between a few folks that already had home computers and the new file servers and educational software that the Glasgow schools had bought. It was very cool and novel. The technology we were using meant that we had to actually crack open the computers and install a communications card manufactured by IBM that was intended for connecting computers in a large building. Once we discovered that they would work across our network connecting thousands of buildings, things really started to happen.

In those early days one of the coolest things we could demonstrate was the ability to access Encyclopedia Britannica which Glasgow Board of Education had purchased and installed on a file server in one of their schools. Thinking back on it now, it seems pretty lame, but in 1991 it was a big deal. That demonstration drew a lot of nationwide attention. A lot of that attention came from the telecommunications giant (now deceased) MCI. After a few years of visits to Glasgow and discussions about why a city might decide to build its own broadband network, we got a very important phone call from an MCI executive named Vinton Cerf. He asked me to meet him for lunch in Reston, VA. During that lunch he asked if Glasgow had considered connecting its broadband network to the internet. I admitted that we had, but that we had no idea how to accomplish that. He offered to help us and, within a few weeks, MCI established the first connection between the internet and Glasgow’s broadband network. That was late 1994 and everything since then has been a bit of a blur.

That first connection was a T1 circuit. T1 is telecommunications jargon for a 1.5 megabit per second (Mbps) pathway between Glasgow and the internet. Today such a circuit would be suitable only for a handful of medium sized businesses, but from the beginning in 1994 through about 1996, one T1 circuit carried all of Glasgow’s internet traffic. If the internet is represented as the interstate highway system, the T1 circuit would be similar to a gravel driveway, but it was our only connection to the interstate. Glasgow has always suffered some from its geography. I-65 passed us by and so did the main line of the railroad, and, to a large extent, the internet passed us by as well. Even though today our connections to the internet are big and getting much bigger, we still are not a major node on the world wide web, and that is at the center of most of the internet service interruptions we sometimes experience here in Glasgow.

While our initial gravel driveway connection to the world has now grown from 1.5 Mbps to 150 Mbps (perhaps now the equivalent of a pretty wide two lane road with occasional passing lanes included), we still have issues with that road. For example, we had a problem with that road just Friday past. Continuing on the road metaphor, Glasgow EPB owns the broadband roads all over Glasgow and parts of Barren County, but our “interchange” with the nationwide interstate network is inside our network operations center right at our offices. There, Windstream and AT&T take ownership of the highway and transport all of our traffic to a massive toll booth in Louisville. There, all of our traffic encounters an AT&T router which examines each piece of email, gaming, news, pictures, or anything else you think of as internet traffic. That router then decides if the traffic is allowed to pass and gives it directions on where to go. The router is sort of like the gatekeeper guy in the Emerald City when Dorothy and the scarecrow and others (Toto too!) knocked on the door and asked for an audience with the Wizard. The router decides who gets to come in and who has to stay outside where that really spooky witch is cavorting about. Well, on Friday the router/gatekeeper guy got new orders from the Wizard (AT&T) that no one from Glasgow was allowed in. That is why you were unable to utilize your internet connection from about 2:30 p.m. until about 7:00 p.m. that day. Within an hour we were certain that the problem was with the instructions AT&T had given the router, but, since we neither own, nor control, AT&T, we simply had to call and beg and plead for several hours while they took their own sweet time sending new orders to the router.

Obviously, we don’t like being treated this way and we are constantly striving to provide redundancy and greater capacity on our local “roads” as well as our roadways connecting Glasgow to the world. We also want to free ourselves from the tyranny which exists when we allow one gatekeeper (AT&T) to control all of our access to the world. What we really need is multiple roads leading out of Glasgow which lead to multiple gatekeepers so that one set of bad instructions cannot render us unable to communicate with the world. For that matter, we really need the same sort of architecture for electric power as well. It might surprise you, but Glasgow has only one source of electricity today just like we have only one internet roadway to the world. Luckily, our electric power gateway, operated by TVA, is a bit more sorted out and less likely to get bad instructions than the guy operating the door at AT&T. Of course we would really like to have redundant feeds for both electric power and internet connectivity, and, that is precisely what we are working on. The only real problem with providing this redundancy is that it is expensive, and folks in Glasgow have grown accustomed to high speed, high reliability, and low cost. . .three things that are very difficult to arrange at the same time. Still, we are trying to accomplish them all.

Within the next month, we will be completing our own fiber optic circuit to Bowling Green and, in turn, to an AT&T router which is in Bowling Green. This will finally allow us nearly infinite capacity to the internet. It will be like having a new twenty lane connector from I-65 directly to the Bypass in Glasgow. As we move traffic off the old highway and onto this new one, it is possible that you may see some service interruptions. The only way I know to explain this is to compare it to construction on the interstate. All of those orange barrels and lower speed limits are frustrating during construction, but after it is over, man, the road is sooo nice! But still, initially our new road will still terminate at only one big AT&T router, so the possibility of bad instructions or other AT&T issues will still be a problem, but we have a plan for that as well.

Other major internet gateways also exist in Bowling Green, and we are working to establish redundant connections to them. Also, other cities like Hopkinsville, and Murray are building similar new roads to connect themselves to neighboring cities and we are working with them to interconnect our fiber to their’s. As that develops, we will eventually have fiber routes all the way to Nashville, and that will open the door for us to interconnect with many other competitive major internet gateways. So, the time is coming when one provider will not be able to totally cripple our internet access, but it is not coming tomorrow. There is work to do and money to be spent before we arrive in internet nirvana.

Peering a bit further over the horizon, it is possible to imagine a time when the interconnected cities might band together to establish themselves as a major internet gatekeeper on our own! If we are successful in bring that about, we may see the major internet content providers like Google, Yahoo, CNN, and others actually seek to locate some of their servers and connections on our fiber backbone. At the same time, if our infotricity idea takes hold, Glasgow might become the provider for advanced electric power metering services for all of the cities connected via the fiber backbone. All of these thing may lead to Glasgow having the most robust internet speeds and capacities in North America. All of these things are possible, but not guaranteed. Still, it is our intention to keep working on our roads and improving their capacity. This work will continue to provide benefits for you, and the occasional frustration. The former should far outweigh the latter, but don’t expect perfection. While no one works harder than we do to deliver the very best internet service possible, we are still human and we do sometimes make mistakes.

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