Who Actually Owns The Internet?, Who Provides Internet To The ISPs?


We have all being having this question. Whether you’re a techie, a regular internet user or.. All you know is that internet service provider of your choice. But there is something we all need to understand. Who provides internet to the ISPs?. And who actually owns the internet?

The Internet is made up a collection of other networks – it’s a network of networks. That’s the seminal notion in Louis Poulin‘s notion of the catenet, which is the fount from which all things Internet flows. So, I own my network. You own your networks. Together, we inter-network.

In this article, let me take you through my deep down research through different blogs and forums. I could find alot of varied responses on who actually owns the internet and two who provides internet to the ISPs, the responses where few but focused to almost the same same or even similar companies. So, lets get on the go.

Who Actually Owns The Internet?

Short Answer: Nobody owns the internet.  Long Answer: Continue reading……

Consider the internet to be a canal, and data to be water. Those who don’t have a canal, but have water that must be sent across to another location, must pay those who own the canals.

Usually, that’s what happens with the internet – ISPs pay bigger ISPs who own the infrastructure that are necessary to transmit data.

There are a few major players who own transmit most of the data. They’re called Tier 1 Internet Service Providers. This is where it all ends, and Tier 1 companies don’t pay anyone else (not directly) for transferring data.

There are just 9 of them in the world (Disputable), and one of them is in India: Tata Communications. Global examples include AT&T and Level 3 Communications – both from the US among others.

These companies spill the cash to develop the infrastructure to lay down cables in the deep sea and other infrastructure to carry internet traffic. [Spill, because it’s bloody expensive to lay down cables] For example, here is a map of the fiber networks of Level 3 Communications:

Image Credit: Techopedia

It touches India at just two points: Mumbai and Chennai.

That’s the network of a single company. There are several such cable networks. Are all cable systems laid by a single company? No. Because laying down cables and building other infrastructure is expensive. [How expensive? Bloody expensive.] Some systems are operated as a consortium of companies. For example, the SEA-ME-WE-4 cable system is operated by a consortium. This system, again, touches India at Mumbai and Chennai. It starts somewhere in France and ends at Singapore. Here is a map, because maps are cool:

Image Credit: Techopedia

As I have said earlier, it’s expensive to lay down cables and not all companies can afford to individually build the infrastructure or to collaborate with other companies.

So, smaller ISPs just rent out the infrastructure from bigger companies. They pay to get their data transmitted.

Also, a single Tier 1 company can’t have access to all locations, and probably doesn’t have the infrastructure to transmit every data that it receives – so, what do they do? They peer (if you don’t know what’s peering, read peer as “partnering”) with other Tier 1 companies. They agree to send an (almost) equal amount of each other’s traffic.

Long answer? You can stop reading here. I think that the information presented so far comfortably answers the question. Or, if you’d like to know more, keep going:

Here is how it goes: There are a bunch of desktops, laptops, mobiles etc. at your building (home, office etc.). They are connected to each other, using a LAN. This LAN can then be connected to another LAN – say in another building. A collection of such LAN can then be connected with an entire cities by Internet Service Providers, who can transmit data with land fiber optic cables or telephone lines. Entire cities can be connected to each to other.

Finally, these should be connected to the world – this is where sea cables come in, and only few companies can afford to build these.

Go back to the image and find “Backbone ISPs” – or, Tier 1 companies who have the infrastructure. Like I said, they can’t build the infrastructure for the entire world (they might not have access to a location, or their existing network might be saturated), and so they peer with other companies (also Tier 1).

Peering explained?

ISP 1: “Love, can you handle some of my data?”
ISP 2: “Sure, can you handle an (almost) equal amount of my data?
ISP: 1: “Cool, thanks”

The other way to send your data through other companies is to transmit.

What’s transmitting?

ISP 1: “Love, can you handle some of my data?”
ISP 2: “Sure, can you handle an (almost) equal amount of my data?”
ISP 1: “Uhm.. sorry, I haven’t got cables, and you know.. other stuff?”
ISP 2: “And you think you can use mine for free?”
ISP 1: “Shut up, take my money”
ISP 2: “Deal.”

Who Provides Internet To The ISPs?

Your ISP interconnects with other ISPs, with whom they agree to exchange traffic. In far simpler times, that traffic exchange was done on a free basis, under the theory that the traffic coming from your network would more or less be equal to the traffic going to your network, so it was far easier to assume parity (thus the charges for sending and receiving being equal, and self-nullifying) than it was to figure out how to build a billing system.

So, if your ISP is mainly residential or user-land business oriented, they’ve probably got deals with more than one “upstream” ISP for transit. Those deals probably say something along the lines of “for every X GB of data you take from us, you’ll get to send us Y GB of data to wherever you want for free, and of course, any data sent to our customers is free”.

With everyone having agreements more or less along those terms, what happens is this:

1) users of a given ISP pay for traffic to and from themselves

2) ISPs who are carrying traffic not for their customers get paid by whoever sent the traffic in the first place

Thus, every packet sent has someone who is paying the ISP who’s carrying it to carry it.

In other words, No one rides for free.

Side talk: given the insane cost of building and operating a backbone network, no one is getting rich off of that either. As far back as 1998 best estimates were that all backbone networks were operating in the red, supported by the customer facing income.

Your ISP pays a bunch of other (usually bigger) ISPs (And those ISPs pay a bunch of other ISPs).

ISP 1: “Hey, can you handle some of my internet traffic?”
ISP 2 (bigger): “Sure, if you can handle an equal amount of mine.”
ISP 1: “Can’t handle your data, I’ll pay you instead”
ISP 2: “Great.”

There are two techniques that apply here:

  1. Neutral peering
  2. Wholesale peering

Neutral peering is the cheaper method, in many countries there are key neutral internet exchanges and they provide connectivity to anyone who can get their fibre to the central switch. You pay a membership fee and some nominal costs. You don’t always get the best connection there but it is a good start.

Wholesale peering, to do this you contact a big wholesale internet transit provider who has a point of presence near you and you buy connectivity from them.

The biggest problem with being an ISP isn’t ‘getting the internet’ it is getting the connection from one place to another. This often involves digging holes, burying fibre and other such challenges.

Small ISPs often just resell other bigger ISPs connections bought at wholesale rates.

To sum it all up, if your ISP is large enough to partner with Tier 1 companies and to create their own infrastructure, they don’t pay anyone else. They only spend cash on the infrastructure (Haha, that’s not cheap either!).


Nobody owns the Internet. The money you pay your ISP is used to pay for many expenses, and just a part of it goes to pay the larger providers from which your ISP buys bandwidth.

That said, at the top of the hierarchy there’s a small group of ISPs, named Tier-1 ISPs, which form the “core” of the Internet. They’re important because they are the ones that connect distant regions and make it possible to reach any location in the world. Tier-1 ISPs don’t pay each other, as it would make no sense (that’s a whole different question). That’s where the chain of payment stops, but that does not make them “owners” of the Internet in any practical sense.

1. Internet as a whole – unified, single entity – is not owned by any one. Internet is more of a concept than an actual entity. In simpler words, it is the network of several networks. Though there are many organisations who determine its structure and standards, no organisation or government can claim its ownership over it.

2. I told you about networks, which have owners. In its infant days, ARPANET served as one and only network. Today, several large corporations provide the routers and cables that actually form these individual networks. These are upstream Internet Service Providers (ISPs). To get a connection to the network, you need to pay these ISPs.

Internet Hierarchy

Image Credit: Techopedia

NSP is National Service Provider.
NAP is Network Access Points.

Just incase you’re interested in setting up / starting an ISP business, you need to reach terms with with a bandwidth provider. Purchase bandwidth on refill basis as it is advisable for new investors with small customer database. Then select your area of business depending upon number of Internet users and Internet operators. Purchase fibre optic cables;Cisco manageable switch,server; router. Then prepare your plans and start their marketing.

Am interested in getting you feedback in the comment box below.


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Kwehangana Hamza


I am a digital content designer and publisher working with a top digital agency in Kampala, Uganda. I started blogging out of my passion for learning & sharing.

Through this blog, I share tech and digital tips i’ve uncovered and hoping they be of great value to you.