Tunisia, Egypt, Miami: The Importance of Internet Choke Points

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The news Thursday evening that Egypt had severed itself from the global Internet came at the same time as an ostensibly far less inflammatory announcement closer to home. Verizon, the telecom giant, would acquire "cloud computing company" Terremark for $1.4 billion. The purchase would "accelerate Verizon's 'everything-as-a-service' cloud strategy," the press release said.

The trouble is that Terremark isn't merely a cloud computing company. Or, more to the point, the cloud isn't really a cloud.

Among its portfolio of data centers in the US, Europe and Latin America, Terremark owns one of the single most important buildings on the global Internet, a giant fortress on the edge of Miami's downtown known as the NAP of the Americas.

The Internet is a network of networks. But what's often forgotten is that those networks actually have to physically connect -- one router to another -- often through something as simple and tangible as a yellow-jacketed fiber-optic cable. It's safe to suspect a network engineer in Egypt had a few of them dangling in his hands last night.

Terremark's building in Miami is the physical meeting point for more than 160 networks from around the world. They meet there because of the building's excellent security, its redundant power systems, and its thick concrete walls, designed to survive a category 5 hurricane. But above all, they meet there because the building is "carrier-neutral." It's a Switzerland of the Internet, an unallied territory where competing networks can connect to each other. Terremark doesn't have a dog in the fight. Or at least it didn't.

Verizon insists there's nothing to worry about. Terremark will be set up as a wholly owned subsidiary. Its carrier-neutral status will remain. "We're not going to try to cramp their style at all," said Lowell McAdam, President and COO of Verizon. "There will be no moves to take certain customers out of play."

I can't help but think of it in the context of another recent purchase. Earlier this month, Google bought its New York office building, 111 8th Avenue, for a reported $1.9 billion. As the Wall Street Journal described, "about one third of the space is occupied by telecommunications companies." But that's severely understating the situation: 111 8th is another of the most important buildings on the Internet, on a short list of fewer than a dozen worldwide. Like the NAP of the Americas, it houses hundreds of independent networks, scattered across the office spaces of multiple independently owned sub-landlords. And now Google owns the whole thing. One assumes that they're not going to cramp their style either.

"It's not about the 'carrier hotel' space," said Google Senior Vice President Jonathan Rosenberg. "We have 2,000 employees on site. It's a big sales center, but also a big engineering center. With the pace at which we're growing, it's very difficult to find space in New York. There are very few buildings in New York that can accommodate our needs. This gives us a lot of control over growing into the space."

But on a day when the government to 80 million people managed to throw the Internet's "kill switch," it's worth remembering that the Internet is a physical network. It matters who controls the nodes. With these two deals, Google and Verizon may have chipped away at the foundation walls of an open, competitive--and therefore free -- Internet.

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Images: 1. Alex Hoyt. 2. Terremark.

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Andrew Blum is a correspondent at Wired and a contributing editor at Metropolis. He is currently writing a book about the physical infrastructure of the Internet. Follow him on Twitter @ajblum.

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