Parallel railroad and Internet networks

Railroad right of ways contributed to the current infrastructure of the Internet in the United States:

Google didn’t come to Council Bluffs because of historical resonance. They came for the fiber, which runs parallel to Iowa’s many railroads and interstates. Rail infrastructure has shaped the language of the network (as noted in David A. Banks’s work on the history of the term “online”), the constellation of companies that form the network (most famously with Sprint emerging from the Southern Pacific Railroad’s internal-communications network), and, most relevant to this story, the actual routes that fiber-optic networks run.

Telecommunications companies quickly recognized the value of rail right-of-way as real estate for running cable networks long before the Internet—the first substantial use of rail networks for telecommunication networks starts with telegraphs. It’s a hell of a lot more efficient to run a cable along a single straight shot of property than negotiating easements with every single landowner between, say, Denver and Salt Lake City.

For railroads, this was a win-win, as the right-of-way agreements generate passive income, and the networks could be used for internal operations of the railroads themselves. As the first dot-com bubble expanded, more and more telecoms rushed to place their cables along rail routes. This New York Times story from 2000 documents the moment well; it also uses the delightful (and today, woefully underused) term “cyberage” and mentions an exciting new player in the telecom scene, Enron Broadband Services. Some railroad companies followed Sprint’s suit in this period, creating their own telecom services, like CSX Fiber Networks.

The markers of this right-of-way race along railroad routes (and highways, which have a similar right-of-way appeal to telecoms) are not especially impressive, but pretty hard to ignore. They usually take the form of orange-tipped white poles, or orange metal signs, spaced out a few meters apart running parallel to the rails. The orange part usually has a label warning people to call before digging, a phone number to call, and sometimes the name of the company or government agency that happens to own the buried cable. Labeled this way, fiber markers become a testament to telecom history, bearing names of companies that fell in the bursting of the first bubble, long ago absorbed into larger telecom networks. The new owners apparently don’t bother replacing the poles with their names or logos—presumably because it’s not really financially worthwhile to send someone to put Level 3 stickers over thousands of Global Crossing or Williams Communications logos on signage that’s more or less designed to be ignored by 99 percent of the public, like most network infrastructure.

Fascinating story: the land along the railroad lines turned out to be valuable not just for railroad uses but for any other infrastructure that needed clear paths. If I remember correctly, some of the right of ways were the product of public-private partnerships between the government and railroad companies. For example, completing long railroad lines might require years of negotiating with individual landowners which would delay important construction. To flip this around a bit, what would Internet networks look like today if railroads had never been constructed?

I wonder how much money this generates each year for the railroads. There is certainly plenty of freight traffic in the United States but it would be interesting to know what these particular routes are worth.

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