Series of tubes

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Ted Stevens, former Alaskan Senator, referred to the Internet as "a series of tubes"

"Series of tubes" is an analogy used by former United States Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) to describe the Internet in the context of network neutrality.[1] On June 28, 2006, he used this metaphor to criticize a proposed amendment to a committee bill. The amendment would have prohibited Internet service providers such as AT&T and Verizon Communications from charging fees to give some companies higher priority access to their networks or their customers. This metaphor was widely ridiculed as demonstrating Stevens' poor understanding of the Internet, despite being in charge of regulating it.[2]


Media mention

On June 28, 2006, Public Knowledge government affairs manager Alex Curtis wrote a brief blog entry introducing the senator's speech and posted an MP3 recording.[3] The next day, the Wired magazine blog 27B Stroke 6 featured a much longer post[4] by Ryan Singel, which included Singel's transcriptions of some parts of Stevens's speech considered the most humorous. Within days, thousands of other blogs and message boards, including BoingBoing,[5] Slashdot,[6] Fark,[7] DailyKos,[8] and others[9] posted the story.

Most writers and commentators derisively cited several of Stevens's misunderstandings of Internet technology, arguing that the speech showed that he had formed a strong opinion on a topic which he understood poorly (e.g., referring to an e-mail message as "an Internet" and blaming bandwidth issues for an e-mail problem much more likely to be caused by mail server or routing issues). The story sparked mainstream media attention, including a mention in The New York Times.[10] The technology podcast This Week in Tech discussed the incident.[11]

According to The Wall Street Journal, as summarized by MediaPost commentator Ross Fadner:[12]

"The Internet is a Series of Tubes!" spawned a new slogan that became a rallying cry for Net neutrality advocates. ... Stevens's overly simplistic description of the Web's infrastructure made it easy for pro-neutrality activists to label the other side as old and out-of-touch.

Partial text of Stevens' comments

Ted Stevens's Quotes

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Ten movies streaming across that, that Internet, and what happens to your own personal Internet? I just the other day Internet was sent by my staff at 10 o'clock in the morning on Friday. I got it yesterday [Tuesday]. Why? Because it got tangled up with all these things going on the Internet commercially.

[...] They want to deliver vast amounts of information over the Internet. And again, the Internet is not something that you just dump something on. It's not a big truck. It's a series of tubes. And if you don't understand, those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and it's going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material, enormous amounts of material.[4]

Technical analysis

The term pipe is a commonly used idiom to refer to a data connection, with pipe diameter being analogous to bandwidth or throughput.[13] For instance, high-bandwidth connections are often referred to as "fat pipes".

Most routers use a data structure called a queue to buffer packets.[14] Under normal operations, all packets move to the front of the queue and are forwarded in a timely manner. When packets arrive more quickly than can be forwarded, the queue length builds up, and the router may start dropping incoming packets either randomly (RED) or according to some rule (AQM) in an effort to prevent or at least delay overrunning the queue. If the queue is completely full, all arriving packets will be dropped.[15] On links that become congested, packets typically spend more time in the queue than they do actually moving down wires or optical fiber. If this dropping or delaying of data occurs to packets that make up certain real-time Internet applications (such as voice over IP), the application may prove impossible to use.[16] Email, presumably what Stevens was referring to when he discussed his staff sending him "an internet" that was delayed several days, is not affected by this kind of sub-second latency.

Pop culture references

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart has made multiple references to Stevens' "series of tubes" description;[17][18][19][20] as a result, Stevens has become well known as the person who once headed the committee charged with regulating the Internet. "I have a letter from a big scientist who said I was absolutely right in using the word 'tubes'," Stevens said to reporters in response to The Daily Show's coverage. When asked if he'd think about going on the show to debate Jon Stewart, Stevens replied, "I'd consider it."[21] The humorous term "Intertubes" has since entered Internet slang.

In the keynote speech at the 2007 Penny Arcade Expo, Wil Wheaton spoke about remembering when the Internet was more like a truck than a series of tubes.[22]

Google has included references to this in two of its products. Google Gears' about box says "the gears that power the tubes" and Google Chrome had an about: easter egg at the address about:internets [sic] which displayed a screensaver of tubes (if Windows XP's sspipes.scr is installed) with the page title "Don't Clog the Tubes!"[23][24] When "about:internets" was entered on a computer lacking that screensaver, the tab displayed a gray screen with the page title "The Tubes are Clogged!". This easter egg was removed as of the release.[citation needed]

The webcomic also ran a satirical series[25] of strips on the subject, with Stevens referring to his nephew as "vice president of tubes" at Verizon, and to the invited technologist Sid Dabster as "not tubologist", much to the amusement of the Chair. Senator Stevens also appears calling technical support, where the resident specialist, Greg Flemming recognizes his line, and explains to him the actual architecture.

The video game Gears of War features an achievement entitled "A Series of Tubes", unlocked after the player has hosted a certain number of online matches.

See also


  1. "stevens-on-nn.mp3" (MP3). 
  2. Senator Stevens's Official Gov't / Senate Web Page
  3. Alex Curtis' original blog entry
  4. 4.0 4.1 Singel, Ryan and Kevin Poulsen (June 29, 2006). "Your Own Personal Internet". 27B Stroke 6, Retrieved 2006-08-24. 
  5. BoingBoing's take (7/02/06)
  6. Slashdot's take (July 3, 2006)
  7. Sen. Stevens explains the internets: "And again, the internet is not something you just dump something on. It's not a truck. It's a series of tubes"
  8. Ted Stevens on the internets
  9. Wired Blog
  10. New York Times - Tail is wagging the internet dog (July 8, 2006)
  11. This week in tech episode 60 - A Series of Tubes.
  12. Ross Fadner (2006-08-08). "Immortalizing Ted Stevens, Net Neutrality for Posterity". Around the Net in Online Marketing. 
  13. Michael Drapkin, Jon Lowy, and Daniel Marovitz (2001). Three Clicks Away: Advice from the Trenches of Ecommerce. John Wiley and Sons. ISBN 0471396826. 
  14. Cisco - Advanced Queuing Techniques in the Cisco IOS
  16. VoIP: An In-Depth Analysis > Delay/Latency
  17. The Daily Show: 2006-07-12 "Party Pooper"
  18. The Daily Show: 2006-07-12 "Headlines - Internet"
  19. The Daily Show: 2006-07-19 "Net Neutrality Act"
  20. The Daily Show: 2007-04-16 "Sen. Ted Stevens"
  21. Senator Ted Stevens will defend his "tubes" remarks on The Daily Show
  22. Wil Wheaton's speech.

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