Back to Main FAQ Index

Hooking up to the Internet

How does the Internet work?

The Internet is a vast cooperative enterprise; it is unique in the history of business as being an organtic thing controlled by no single person, company or entity.

Internet service providers are the shock troops who physically hook up individual customers - individuals or businesses. They buy net access from an "upstream provider". Eventually, the signal gets passed to one or more "backbone providers", which have the capability to route it across the country or around the world.

This creates some extraordinarily complex business arrangements, but the result is a surprisingly smooth-running system that lets my PINGs go from Marina del Rey, California to Singapore and back in under a second. Try that on a plane!

How do I get hooked up?

You talk to a "wholesale ISP" or "backbone provider". Wholesale ISPs, such as Net Access, buy connectivity from one or more backbone providers and resell it to you. They are normally much cheaper than going directly through backbones, and they can have more redundant connectivity as well. Most of them are "multi-homed" - that is, they rely on more than one backbone for their connectivity. So if MCI goes down, they temporarily switch to UUNET. The Internet was designed in such a way as to make this smooth and seamless; it "routes around damage".

A backbone provider will give you more direct access and therefore slightly faster connections. However, it will also be extremely expensive - likely rates are 2-3 times what you'd pay a wholesale ISP.

Sidebar: Bandwidth without Telcos

In the years when I had a severe lack of bandwidth, I always dreamed of setting up a connection with Los Nettos in their charming Marina del Rey high-rise. The savings from paying telcos absurd rates for T1s would be offset by the rent, yes, but who wouldn't want to live near the Marina? It was a compelling proposition, and I managed to sell it to a group of investors who wanted to produce a free ISP.

The connection was exactly as advertised - zippy. We got the ultra-fast 10mbps option. All we had to do was to hire the building's pet contractor, Angeles Electric, to string the wires. Hiring Angeles wound up being quite expensive and harrowing; they were so busy, thanks to having the full trust of this and many other buildings, that they were difficult to get hold of. But we finally did, and we were finally able to set up a time to get hooked up.

Be sure to bear unanticipated expenses like Angeles in mind when considering an Ethernet connection. Also note that this Building (4640/4676 Admiralty Way) has had its fill of ISPs due to their high electrical draw and pesky manners; we had a tough time getting them to accept us as tenants. Perhaps the worst consequence of this is that, thanks in part to the tremendous demand for space created by ISPs, management has gotten solvenly. The bathrooms clog up on a regular basis, and the elevators desperately need an expensive overhaul.

I still like being near the Marina, and I love the high-speed connectivity we have. But I admit to being disappointed in the Building and its management (even though the security staff is great); if Orange County's Donald Bren were to come here, he'd be appalled.

Probably the most unfortunate thing about our setup is that we assumed that we'd get venture capital, so we signed up for tons of bandwidth. Then, when we didn't get it, we were left with a crushing overhead that affects us to this day. We would have been better off starting smaller and more cautiously.

Nonetheless, when I read all the telco horror stories on Inet-Access, it sure is cool to have no telco in between us and our upstream ISP. And that great 10mbps connection is costing us $ 2,750 a month through ISI - a bit less than UUNET's fees for the T1 alone, without the telco charges added.

What do I need to hook up?

At least one server computer, most likely a Linux system.

A router. Routers look at your network and figure out which net packets are destined for the Internet; then they send those over, while letting those destined for other destinations in your network stay. Routers are complex to configure, but usually your upstream ISP will do it for you.

In most cases, you'll need a CSU/DSU and a T1 or greater connection to the Internet. A CSU/DSU is like a modem that connects the router to the T1. A T1 is a special phone line you order from the phone company.

All of this is generally quite expensive, but prices are dropping. There are also a few new ways to get connected that are quite modestly priced by comparison. A DSL line is about the same speed as a T1, but it costs around $ 400 a month instead of the $ 1,500 or so a T1 phone line plus ISP connection runs. You can also start with cheaper DSLs from about $ 60-100 a month. Unfortunately, according to my friend and long-time contributer Avi Freedman, DSL would be inadvisable for ISP use, except as a backup line. "DSL can be down for many days and Bell gives not a shit...." was his comment. I have confirmed this with a more disinterested source; Brad Robertson, my former boss at Freelink, now has a DSL connection. He says it's great, except when it's down; when it's down, it's down for long periods of time. Furthermore, the DSL provider does not supply a static IP, making it impractical to run servers, and thus impossible to use for a proto-ISP. Pity.

ISDN is a technology whose time really didn't quite come. It was complex to install and set up, and is slower than even the cheapest DSL. The phone companies really ruined it by charging by the minute for most of these lines. At this time, I think ISDN's time is past.

What are the available speeds?

T1 is the speed you'll hear about the most often. It is 1.554 million bits per second. It can support approximately 200-300 28kbps modem users.

T3 is 30 T1s, or 45mb per second. This kind of connection is mind-bendingly expensive. If you're a startup ISP, you will normally buy your connectivity from a company that has this kind of access.

Higher speeds exist, but you won't see them until you're pretty far advanced in the game.

Sample connectivity prices from Net Access, a nationwide wholesale ISP.

T1 pricing from UUNET, a major backbone provider.

Los Nettos, the wholesale ISP from which I (and a healthy percentage of the ISPs in Southern California) get connectivity.

How do I get IP addresses?

I've added this question because it's one of the most frequently asked ones I get in my email.

IP addresses almost always come from your upstream provider. You buy a T1, ADSL or other connection from them, and they will normally assign you a block of addresses. For a traditional T1 connection, you will normally get a block of 254 addresses called a Class C. If and when you get larger, you'll be able to ask your upstream ISP for more addresses. They will look at your current use of the Class C and give you new addresses only if you need them.

For ADSL, you start with a number of addresses which depend on your specific needs - somewhere between 1 and 16 is common . You can then pay for the additional addresses you need.

Once you get larger, you may want to get redundant connections to the backbone by using multiple providers. This is called multi-homing, and requires an expert familiar with the intricacies of the Internet to set up. Basically, if you want multi-homing, you should either be a network expert already, or be prepared to hire one. Mistakes made when setting up multi-homing can have disasterous consequences for the entire worldwide network, so this is not a do-it-yourself job. Once you are at that level, you will be getting your IP addresses from the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) instead of your upstream provider. But most people reading this FAQ won't be doing this for a long time to come.

Back to Main FAQ Index