It can be easy to forget what life was like before the internet. For many, not a day goes by without checking email, browsing online or consulting Google. Some 1.3 billion people alive today are young enough never to have experienced anything else. Yet has the network of networks underpinning all this activity actually reached every part of the globe?
Various reasons still stop people accessing the internet where they live, of course. There’s censorship, for starters. “We don’t get much traffic from North Korea,” says John Graham-Cumming of CloudFlare, a content delivery network – the equivalent of a regional parcel distribution centre, but for web traffic. “Likewise, early in the Syrian civil war they cut off internet access and we saw a drop in traffic coming from those Syrian connections.”
It’s also a well-established problem that many of the world’s poorest people do not have the means or technology to log on, with just 31% of people in the developing world using the internet, compared to 77% in the developed countries.
However, these political and social barriers to access do not necessarily tell us about the physical extent of the internet itself. Assuming you had the right device and the political freedom, is there anywhere left on Earth where the labyrinth of cable and wireless signals does not reach?
Answering this question begins with an explanation of the various tiers of internet access. The primary mechanisms for getting online are wired connections, mobile networks and satellites. Fibre-optic cables make up the core of the internet, criss-crossing oceans and land. The first of those communications cables were put down in the 1850s for carrying telegraph signals. Today they connect all continents except Antarctica, and include many – but not all – small island nations.
Mobile connections, meanwhile, rely on cell phone towers. And these can have an impressive reach. “Two years ago I was in the Sahara, and for quite a large amount of time I had access,” Graham-Cumming says. “It was patchy and slow, but it was there.” Indeed, many developing countries, especially in Africa, rely predominantly on mobile connections for accessing the internet.
Finally, satellites are the slowest means of getting online, but the only choice for those living far from a cell phone tower or wire. The Iridium satellite constellation coverage extends over the entire world, and their satellite phones can wire you up in otherwise unconnected places, such as national parks in the US, Antarctica or isolated spots of land like the Cook Islands. “If you live out in the sticks somewhere, it makes no sense for your local telecom provider to run a fibre to your house or farm,” says David Belson, editor of the quarterly State of the Internet report at Akamai, one of the world’s largest content delivery networks. “So in many cases satellite is the optimal solution, although it may not be the fastest one.” Sheer distance explains that delay: from the equator, for instance, data needs to travel about 22,000 miles (35,000km) between satellite and user.
Internet access via satellite is gradually improving, though. A satellite broadband provider called O3b Networks recently launched its first four satellites, which it says orbit around four times closer to Earth than regular geosynchronous satellites and cover a 400 mile (643km) circumference per satellite. This should speed up data transfer by about four times compared to traditional satellite connections. The Cook Islands in the Pacific signed up as the first trial customers, while places like Somalia and inland Peru are expected to join in six months or so. The company also plans to provide internet to cruise ships and offshore oilrigs, which currently use traditional satellites. “There will always be places where it’s hard to get either terrestrial or satellite connections, but those pockets will become smaller and smaller,” says Steve Collar, O3b’s CEO.
Likewise, Google recently announced plans to tackle remaining internet deserts through its Loon project, a group of giant balloons that will fly at about 70,000 feet (21,000 metres) and deliver internet to rural or disaster-stricken areas. Like satellites, people connecting through the balloons would need a special antenna to deliver and receive a signal. The pilot launch took place last June, when 30 balloons were deployed above New Zealand’s South Island.
Other technologies also promise to make access easier in the small or temporary black spots still remaining in more developed nations. In underground tunnels, internet can be delivered by creating local hotspots using mobile radios, as is the case on Amtrak and Eurostar trains, and in some city subways.
Is coverage pretty much ubiquitous then? Not quite. There are a few places left where cable, wireless or satellite signals do not reach. Deep caves like Georgia’s Krubera Cave, which reaches 5,610 feet (1,710m) underground, for one, would likely be devoid of service – it’s the deepest cave on Earth. (However, even underground it wouldn’t be guaranteed if there’s a cell phone tower nearby, for example, or an opening directly overhead that a satellite signal could penetrate.)
Another possible last place without internet is deep underwater. While many submarines have internet enabled through the same means that they use to keep up radio contact, the signals can be poor or non-existent because the signal can become distorted by water. “I bet a nuclear submarine has really rubbish access,” Graham-Cumming speculates.
In fact, the best way to get offline might be a self-imposed ban. It’s possible that internet-free zones might emerge in the future. Some communities may choose to deliberately cut themselves off from the internet, much like the uncontacted tribes in South America, New Guinea and India, who purposefully choose to remain isolated. “I wouldn’t be surprised if some group eventually says, ‘No, we don’t want to have internet,’” says Graham-Cumming.
To truly avoid the internet, then, you have to make a great deal of effort. Even the remotest wilderness now yields a signal of some sort. So if you ever find yourself yearning for a life before emails, LOLcat memes and Facebook, consider this: the tendrils of the ultimate network are so widespread now, it’s surprisingly difficult to escape.