Fiber map sheds light on infrastructure trends and weaknesses

A significant amount of 'infrastructure sharing' is among the discoveries made in a mash-up map of fiber conduits recently created by researchers.

fiber map lead image
Credit: UW-Madison

If you've ever wondered just where the fiber conduits that carry our Internet traffic run, wonder no more. Researchers have created a map.

Four years in the making, the map, sourced in part from public records, shows the long-haul fiber that carries Internet data around the country. Additionally, locations where multiple cables connect are shown.

This kind of map has never existed before.

Internet infrastructure

Not much is known about "today's physical Internet infrastructure," the researchers say.

So they delved in and, through a collection of Tier-1 ISP and cable company maps combined with public records, started to construct a map of the long-haul fiber network (PDF).

Public records were important to "improve the fidelity of our map," the researchers, who are from the University of Wisconsin, Colgate University, and security company Niksun, said.

The permitting process required for conduit—at the local government level—means "documents held by county clerks and other bodies record the exact path of cables as they cross public and private land," MIT Technology Review points out in an article about the map.

Sources

Other sources used include commercial fiber, utility rights-of-way information, environmental impact statements, and fiber sharing arrangements by the different states' Departments of Transports.

That previously underused data was garnered, along with the ISP and cable company maps.

That made reverse-engineering the geography of actual long-haul fiber networks who haven't published fiber maps, the scientists say.

The map ended up as a composite of openly available maps of 20 U.S. fiber providers and is comprised of 273 nodes and 542 conduits. 

What they found

Jointly used and previously installed conduits are prevalent, the study discovered. Presumably, that cuts costs.

"A striking characteristic" of the U.S. long-haul fiber-optic network is that there is a "significant amount of infrastructure sharing," the researchers say.

The conduit carries multiple fiber pipes belonging to different companies.

So, one could assume that all that needs to happen is that the conduit gets damaged and the entire geographic route fails.

Security

Interestingly, the Department of Homeland Security is making the map and data behind it available through a project called Predict, which offers data relevant to Internet security to government, private, and public researchers for cybersecurity research, says MIT Technology Review's article.

If you have an account at Protected Repository for the Defense of Infrastructure Against Cyber Threats (Predict), you can download the data.

Features

Prominent features of the mash-up include dense deployments, such as in the northeast and coastal areas; long haul hubs like Denver and Salt Lake City; a pronounced absence of infrastructure in the upper plains and four corners regions; parallel deployments found between Kansas City to Denver; and spurs along some routes, such as northern routes, the scientists point out in their documentation.

Railroad lines

For a vast majority of the paths, "we find that physical link paths more often follow roadway infrastructure compared with rail infrastructure," the map designers say.

And, also surprisingly, numerous conduits were found that are not co-located with transportation right-of-ways at all. Pipelines are used in some of those cases.

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