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Internet Infrastructure

The UN recently declared that internet access is a basic human right. The internet contains the largest database of information, the most advanced communication network, and is shaping the development of the modern world. It is imperative that the internet remain open and accessible as this emerging technology continues to develop.


Context within NORA

Relationships to needs

Opportunities to learn: The internet is a platform that enables users to provide access to an unfathomable amount of information

Relationships to resources

Energy from any source (e.g., fossil fuels, solar energy) converted into electric power is needed for the physical infrastructure to operate

Minerals: Copper for conductors, cables, circuit boards, etc.

               Aluminum for housings, ports, etc.

               Petroleum for the various plastics needed for cables, circuit boards, housings, etc.

               Silica for fiber optic cables.

               Fossil Fuels to supply energy to the physical infrastructure.

Rare Earth Minerals: Neodymium for ceramic capacitors

                               Gadolinium for computer memory

Communications and information infrastructure: The Internet is the newest, largest, and most significant development in communication and information technology

Repositories of knowledge: The internet has the capacity to store more information than any physical place could, such as libraries.

Intangibles: The Internet is the largest network of interconnected information and knowledge.


Relationships to organizational forms

The infrastructure of the Internet, like most infrastructure, has been built mostly according to organizational forms belonging to the committed services or sales cluster.

Most business models of organizations offering Internet-related services can be classified either with the committed services or sales cluster, or the individual sales cluster, or a combination of the two. Examples include:

Brokerage – A website which brings consumers and sellers together to facilitate transactions

Advertising – A business model in which banner ads are placed on a website. As payment for hosting the ads, the website receives a portion of the advertisers revenue.

Infomediary – A website that sells data about their users buying trends or interests to other firms.

Merchant – A website that sells a variety manufacturer's products in one place.

Manufacturer (direct) – A website in which the manufacturer can directly sell their goods to a consumer.

Affiliate – Similar to advertising except that the affiliate can sell their products directly from the site. The affiliate then shares a portion of the profits it receives with the host website.

Community – This model is based on user loyalty. It is generally free to users but employs premium services, voluntary donations, etc.

Subscription – Users are charged periodic fees to gain access to the service.

Utility – A website that requires users to pay for specific content i.e. on demand, or pay as you go.

Free knowledge cluster: The internet has the potential to sidestep the very expensive and tiered traditional educational system. However, it also needs to operate within the context of currencies and markets.

Networks: The internet is the broadest communication network in the world

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Understanding current patterns of abundance and scarcity

Physical Infrastructure

The internet’s physical infrastructure is a network comprised of multiple tiers of communication. A home computer or local area network (LAN) connects to an Internet Service Provider (ISP) using a modem and specialized cables i.e. dial-up (telephone line), broadband, and fiber optic. The ISP then connects the user to a local Point of Presence (POP). This acts as a backbone giving internet access to users within a specific region. Then multiple POPs connect to a larger Network Access Point (NAP) which functions in a similar way to the POPs but is shared between ISPs. Another device called a router determines what information to send to a specific computer. Routers exist in the same tier as a modem. This infrastructure allows all internet users to be interconnected, creating the largest communication, information, and knowledge database currently developed

The main problem with this type of a structure is that building it is very expensive, especially installing or upgrading a cable system. This deters private companies from further development of their infrastructure and become complacent with the current level of development. Competition between these businesses should in theory prevent this reluctance to develop and innovate. However, building multiple cable networks and POPs is an extremely redundant. In this, it is similar to energy infrastructure. Having multiple internet service providers in one area is similar to having power companies each developing their own power line system and power plants in one area. Like power companies, Internet providers come to an agreement to divide up the territories in which they operate.

However, unlike power companies the regional monopoly that developed the infrastructure is unregulated in many countries. As a result the innovation and quality of the physical infrastructure stagnates. Some countries like Japan have avoided this problem by artificially promoting competition by regulating the ISPs. They do so by forcing them  to sell access to their infrastructure to an array of independent providers at reasonable prices. This circumvents monopolistic practices by forcing the large companies to promote smaller independent businesses and gives small ISPs an avenue to develop their own enterprise without being price gouged or denied access by larger companies.

The US and other countries however are not as lucky as Japan. Taking the US as an example, it has continuously been falling behind in service and now, according to Net Index, places 34th in the world in internet speeds with an average of 15.94 MB/s. The US falls behind countries like Lithuania at 36.84 MB/s, Sweden at 28.12 MB/s, and many more. While there is some competition within US internet markets, such as the new Google Fiber operation in Kansas City, Missouri, there are many places with only one provider. A large area of the Northeast US only having access to Time Warner cable is a good example. However, Google Fiber is a very rare circumstance and only is operational in an extremely small area; the rest of the US is developing into regional monopolies. Some sort of regulation and quality control is necessary for the advancement of the internet in the US and other countries that are having this problem.

Access to the physical part of the internet can also be an issue. Not counting countries without a reasonably developed internet structure, there are generally two reasons for a lack of access. One is price; the lack of competition can make connections prohibitively expensive in some areas. There can also be a certain level of quality that consumers demand that the lower priced services may not be able to provide. Second and more common is a scenario in which the provider is not willing to build the infrastructure in an area. There is a certain point where running an extremely long cable for only a few customers becomes unprofitable for the company. This problem mostly affects rural areas, as a result they are forced to depend on satellite internet services which do not offer the same speeds, and are less reliable and cost effective. This problem also affected many rural areas when electric infrastructure was being developed. These people formed rural electric cooperatives in order to build their own power infrastructure. Consumers who wish to develop their own infrastructure could pursue the similar goals whether it be building their own POP and NAP on land, investing in satellite internet, or lobbying the government to provide access in their area.

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Digital Infrastructure

The other half of the structure of the internet is the digital aspect. The internet is comprised of millions of unique websites, billions of unique users, and is growing rapidly. Given the wide array of communication services, entertainment, information databases, and other life improving enhancements the internet provides, there are those that wish to censor, monetize, and generally abuse this system.

Censorship within the internet occurs on a country to country basis. All governments exercise various degrees of censorship. Many governments that generally protect civil liberties censor illegal activity such as child pornography and piracy. On the other end of the spectrum some governments restrict websites to limit information, knowledge, and their citizen’s ability to communicate. The OpenNet Initiative classifies countries based on their various levels of censorship. They measure censorship by determining how much filtering occurs within political, social, conflict, security, and internet tool websites, with countries like Sweden and China at opposite ends of the spectrum. Another organization, Reporters Without Borders, also have a similar system but focus more on countries that they perceive as potential active “enemies” of the internet. Countries such as Iran and Syria fall under their “enemies” category, while Australia and Russia are countries they are currently monitoring for censorship.

Governments are not the only entities attempting to censor parts of the internet. Various entertainment industries have been lobbying for legislation that appears to be an attempt at stopping some unfavorable aspect of the internet, most prominently piracy. While these bills do contain legislation that would aid in preventing piracy, the vast majority of these bills contain clauses that give the entertainment industry an immense amount of power to censor websites not related to the declared intent of the bill. These bills essentially make websites legally responsible for the content the users provide, and if a user submits copyrighted material to the site the entire site can be taken down. The problem with this is that moderation at the kind of scale these websites would have to operate on is impossible given many of them have hundreds of millions of users. For instance if one user uploads a copyrighted song owned by Sony to YouTube, Sony could have YouTube taken down without notice. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is the most famous of these bills, but there are other similar bills that failed to pass such as the Protect IP Act (PIPA) and Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) in the US, Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) in the EU, and the C-11 bill in Canada. These bills are being introduced more frequently as entertainment industries realize that their current models of monetization i.e. cable television, physical media sales, digital sales with prices similar to their physical counterparts, and the vast majority of non-subscription-based media are becoming obsolete as internet based entertainment becomes more prominent. The entertainment industry essentially wants to stall the development of less profitable, more pro-consumer services such as Netflix, Spotify, and YouTube in order to keep their current revenue streams alive as long as possible

While censorship is a direct threat to internet access, monetization is a developing area of the internet that needs to have some sort of regulation to prevent abuse in the future. As many of these websites are classified as services or entertainment, monetization of these websites is becoming an increasingly debated topic within the internet. All of the business models previously mentioned within the Context of Nora section can be used very effectively and fairly if implemented properly. Given that these are fairly new models, companies and users have yet to define what models are acceptable in certain situations. For example, why is it perfectly fine for Netflix and Hulu Plus to charge for a subscription while YouTube doesn’t? The same could be applied to various other websites as many of them provide entertainment or a service. Currently the ideal is that the internet is free after paying for the service through the ISP, but this may not be the case in the future. Websites and ISPs may eventually charge for access to websites in the future that we would not imagine to be paid services today. Consumers should take steps to determine what types of websites should or should not be monetized.

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Approaches to creating greater abundance

Physical Infrastructure

  • Government ownership and control.
  • Government regulation and quality control over private corporations.
  • Community ownership and control.

Digital Infrastructure

  • Government ownership and control
  • Government regulation and quality control over private corporations
  • Business models that promote websites to create free content
  • Advertising
  • Infomediary
  • Affiliate
  • Community

Links and Stories

Net Index


The Internet Governance Forum

World Summit on the Information Society

Electronic Frontier Foundation


Chilling Effects

Reporters Without Borders

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Chung, Jongpil. " Comparing Online Activities in China and South Korea: The Internet and the Political Regime." Asian Survey 48, No. 5 (September/October 2008): 727-751

Jackson, Nicholas . "United Nations Declares Internet Access a Basic Human Right." The Atlantic. (accessed April 29, 2013).

Malecki, Edward J. "The Economic Geography of the Internet's Infrastructure." Economic Geography 78, No. 4 (Oct., 2002): 399-424

"Net Index by Ookla." Net Index by Ookla. (accessed March 1, 2013).

Nunziato, Dawn C.. Virtual freedom: net neutrality and free speech in the Internet age. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Law Books, 2009. Print.

"OpenNet Initiative." OpenNet Initiative. (accessed February 28, 2013).

"Reporters Without Borders." Reporters Without Borders. (accessed March 5, 2013).

Tagrin, Tomer. "The 9 types of online business models; which one do you use? – The Next Web." The Next Web – International technology news, business & culture. (accessed May 1, 2013)

"Why Broadband Service in the U.S. Is So Awful:" Scientific American." Science News, Articles and Information | Scientific American. (accessed March 2, 2013).

Yetmar, Scott Andrew. "Business Ethics Resources on the Internet." Journal of Business Ethics   80, No. 2 (June 2008): 281-288

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