The Internet Backbone and the American Metropolis

June 1999

Mitchell L. Moss
([email protected])
Taub Urban Research Center
Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service
New York University

Anthony M. Townsend ([email protected])
Dept. of Urban Studies and Planning
Massachusetts Institute of Technology




Despite the rapid growth of advanced telecommunications services, there is a lack of knowledge about the geographic diffusion of these new technologies. The Internet presents an important challenge to communications researchers, as it threatens to redefine the production and delivery of vital services including finance, retailing, and education. This paper seeks to address the gap in the current literature by analyzing the development of Internet backbone networks in the United States between 1997 and 1999. We focus upon the inter-metropolitan links that have provided transcontinental data transport services since the demise of the federally subsidized networks deployed in the 1970ís and 1980ís. We find that a select group of seven highly inter-connected metropolitan areas consistently dominated the geography of national data networks despite massive investment in this infrastructure over the study period.

Furthermore, while prosperous and internationally-oriented American cities lead the nation in adopting and deploying Internet technologies, interior regions and economically distressed cities have failed to keep up. As information-based industries and services account for an increasing share of economic activity, this evidence suggests that the Internet may aggravate the economic disparities between regions, rather than level them. Although the capacity of the backbone system has slowly diffused throughout the metropolitan system, the geographic structure of interconnecting links has changed little. Finally, the continued persistence of the metropolis as the center for telecommunications networks illustrates the need for a more sophisticated understanding of the interaction between societies and technological innovations.

Keywords: Internet backbone, technology diffusion, cities, metropolitan areas.

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With support from the National Science Foundation, under the Urban Research Initiative
(C) 1999, 2000, 2001 Taub Urban Research Center, New York University
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