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Since 1995, when commercial backbone networks permanently replaced NSFNET, commercial Internet backbone providers have generally interconnected with each other through voluntary, market-negotiated agreements.[1] There are no general, industry-specific regulations that govern backbone interconnection in the United States.[2] Instead, commercial backbone operators independently make decisions about interconnection by weighing the benefits and costs on a case-by-case basis.[3]

Typically, backbones connect to each other under one of two types of arrangements. In a "peering" arrangement, backbones of similar size engage in a barter arrangement in which backbone A carries traffic for backbone B in exchange for backbone B carrying a similar amount of traffic for backbone A. In this arrangement, exchanged traffic generally is destined only for the other backbone’s end users. In a "transit" arrangement, a smaller backbone pays a larger backbone to carry its customers' traffic to all end users on the Internet.[4] To date, market forces have encouraged interconnection among backbones and between backbones and last-mile ISPs.

Today, these backbones make up the core or "middle" of the Internet. Generally, individual backbone networks are made up of a multiplicity of redundant, high-speed, high-capacity, long-haul, fiber-optic transmission lines that join at hubs or points of interconnection across the globe.[5] Transmission over the backbone is generally reliable even when one component fails because there are multiple different routes of transmission from one computer to another.[6] A backbone's customers include ISPs providing connectivity to end users, providers of content and applications that wish to connect their computer servers directly to a backbone, and specialized companies that lease space on shared or dedicated computer servers to smaller content and applications providers.


  1. Particularly in the Internet's early days, many backbone providers exchanged traffic at government-sponsored Network Access Points (NAPs) — the Internet's equivalent to public airports, where the routes of many different carriers converge. (When the government privatized the Internet, it transferred control of these points to commercial providers.) Internet backbone providers now increasingly rely on privately arranged points of interconnection, largely because of congestion at the NAPs.

    Jonathan E. Nuechterlein & Philip J. Weiser, Digital Crossroads: American Telecommunications Policy in the Internet Age 132 (paperback ed. 2007).

  2. See generally id. at 133 ("These peering and transit agreements are completely unregulated. Neither the FCC nor any other governmental authority regulates the prices that a larger backbone network may charge a smaller one for transit services or mandates that backbone providers interconnect at all.").
  3. As one commentator notes:
    Currently, there are no domestic or international industry-specific regulations that govern how Internet backbone providers interconnect to exchange traffic, unlike other network services, such as long distance voice services, for which interconnection is regulated. Rather, Internet backbone providers adopt and pursue their own interconnection policies, governed only by ordinary laws of contract and property, overseen by antitrust rules.

    Michael Kende, The Digital Handshake: Connecting Internet Backbones 2 (FCC Office of Plans and Policy, Working Paper No. 32, 2000)[1].

  4. See generally Nuechterlein & Weiser, at 132-33.
  5. Id. at 131-38. See also Li Yuan & Gregory Zuckerman, Level 3 Regains Luster Amid Web-Video Boom, Wall St. J., Dec. 21, 2006, at C1 (providing a map of Level 3's fiber-optic backbone).
  6. Douglas E. Comer, The Internet Book 137-42 (4th ed. 2007).