Note: This is a paper from my Spring semester at the Pratt Institute. It may or may not turn into a larger work. For more recent (and interesting) work on this subject, check out Kevin Slavin's talk, or this video by Ben Mendelsohn on 60 Hudson.

One Wilshire, Los Angeles [Kazys Varnelis]

“Concentrated [city] cores dominated not only the physical but also the telecommunicational realm. Dispersal of the latter would prove more difficult.”
-Robert Sumrell and Kazys Varnelis – Blue Monday

In a neat paradox, as populations decanted across the country in the postwar years, the United States’ growing telecommunications network became ever more concentrated and dependent on the traditional urban centers of the previous century. As information technology began to dominate the American economy and culture, many writers and thinkers predicted the decline of “place” in society, specifically the decline of concentrated urban centers, as the population, able to live anywhere and stay connected, increasingly turned towards the network for work and play. These authors, fascinated with the possibilities of a cyborg culture, envisioned an equal access network that would obliterate the limitations of geography. These writings often neglected the fact that the network relied, and still relies, on very physical, very geographic network infrastructure. As Stephen Becker of the blog mammoth writes, “the globalized world is still very heavy.”

Early Network Growth 
At the start of the 20th century, communication lines relied heavily on a nodal system - telephone and telegraph networks emanated from exchanges at a centralized “Company Office” in each neighborhood, which was then connected to a central switching station in the center of the city. 

Early ARPANET network models, Paul Baran [Martin Dodge]
Cold War concerns about vulnerability led to planned redundancy and dispersal for these systems, allowing communications to continue to function even in the event of nuclear catastrophe. AT&T, the largest provider at the time, often built centers that could withstand nuclear attack (the Long Lines Building at 33 Thomas Street is one example) (Sumrell 72). While network planners, notably Paul Baran at the Rand Corporation, advocated for the creation of nodes outside of city centers, in general they were not built to their planned extent (Hart 668). 

This early system later grew into the communication network we know today. The predecessor to the Internet, ARPANET, was largely built on these phone lines. As the Internet expanded, it grew increasingly dependent on these central switching stations. Until deregulation, the same traditional telephone carriers only became more essential to the functioning of the network. These paths of least resistance in infrastructure development occurred because the cities that tended to dominate spatially in the age of the telephone and telegraph remained dominant in the age of telecommunications. 

Networks and the Information Economy

UUNET (now Verizon) network map, with urban nodes
Manuel Castells and Peter Hall explore the increasing importance of broadband and “wired” cities to the global economy, citing the growth of new “technopoles” which rely on high-bandwidth networks and clustered information technology to become economic powerhouses. In addition to covering new tech cities in Portugal, Silicon Valley, and Japan, they cite older cities like London and New York as former industrial powerhouses gone high tech, now technopoles themselves. The shift in technology allowed the dispersal of manufacturing and traditional production outside city limits while “command and control” knowledge work, dependent on fast and reliable networks, replaced them in the city’s economy. The new dominant industries of insurance and finance, along with the public and private institutions that supplemented them, grew alongside the network.
At the start of the Internet Age, many writers anticipated the decline of dense urban centers, as fast connections would allow highly dispersed workforces to telecommute without leaving their homes. The explosion of home computing and ubiquitous networks, they argued, would end “place” as it had traditionally been known. The increasingly dense connections of the web do allow for greater mobility for both companies and workers, but at the same time geographic density and clustering becomes even more appealing, as companies place their offices near attractive high-bandwidth sites.

The clustering of businesses, especially in finance and insurance, “provide the specialized social connectivity that allows a firm or market to maximize the benefits of its technological connectivity (Sassen 23). In other words, connectivity intensifies the need for physical proximity in industry clusters, as social connections become more valuable through the increased efficiency of global network connections.

Earlier telegraph and telephone networks, which were heavily subsidized by the state, encouraged companies to locate in centralized cities. The expansion of the Internet, however, “did not require the blessing of centrally-controlled telephone or television networks, but instead proceeded in a decentralized fashion as increasing numbers of private and public operators adopted the new networking model and peered with existing participants to join the Internetwork” (Bar et al, 110). Later telecommunications networks were then largely laid privately for the benefit of existing companies and institutions, which had the resources to build out access to this new network (Sussman 38). 

Networks in an Urban Environment

New York City's major data centers []

The high-bandwidth networks that currently serve today’s cities take on a specialized architectural form in dense urban areas. Known as carrier hotels or colocation centers, high-rise buildings serve as essential nodes for the dozens of companies that provide telecommunication services to the city. As there are “relatively few high-bandwidth transcontinental and transoceanic fiber-optic lines… even fewer Tier-1 carriers that sell space on these lines, and […] still fewer mobile phone operators and last-mile connection (DSL or cable broadband service) providers that allow the end user to access bandwidth,” (Varnelis and Friedberg, 28), the inner city “peering” points represented by these carrier hotels are essential points of access to the global Internet for millions of local users. Cities and their inhabitants communicate with the wider world through a small number of these specialized buildings. 

Carrier hotels are typically “carrier neutral,” that is, they do not favor one telecom carrier over another in renting space, allowing telecoms to share connections and exchange traffic between Internet networks. Because costs in bandwidth continue to drop, most colocation centers offer use of their equipment for low prices, making most of their income from the value of real estate alone.

One Wilshire, Los Angeles [Kazys Varnelis]

This is the case at One Wilshire, a 30 story building in the heart of Los Angeles. Law offices in a former life, the building now hosts 23 stories – 665,000 square feet - of servers, fiber cables, and other network hardware. Nearly 300 different telecom companies share space in the building (Jardin). This intensive use brings high profits - by one estimate, One Wilshire has the highest per-square-foot rent in North America. One Wilshire’s important second life as a colocation center happened by coincidence: MCI, a telecommunications company, needed a tall structure near AT&T’s central switching station to locate their long-distance microwave antennae. After finding a suitable location at One Wilshire (actually located at 624 South Grand), MCI was soon followed by other Internet service providers, long distance carriers, and other communication companies. In fact, the One Wilshire site became so successful that over a dozen other buildings in the surrounding blocks were converted to carrier hotels as well.

Kazys Varnelis and Robert Sumrell, writing as AUDC, comment on the outer blandness of One Wilshire and its surroundings, noting “its neutral grid lacks symbolic content, making it a tower without qualities” (61). This is a common feature of most urban network centers like One Wilshire: besides telltale rooftop cooling systems, there is little that distinguishes carrier hotels from the surrounding urban fabric.

David Grahame Shane was aware of this phenomenon in his work on “recombinant urbanism.” “It has,” he writes, “become clear that heterotopic developments are one of the norms of the network city. They allow for great flexibility in the retrofitting of previous, specialized built structures for new uses” (295). Heterotopias, the dominant urban form in 21st century cities, are flexible spaces that transform according to a city’s needs.  A common trend, as we will see in New York, is that data does not seek new forms in existing urban fabric, but repurposes existing forms for its needs.

One Wilshire may be the most important hub on the West Coast, but even less-trafficked network hubs are nearly as valuable. Most cities, or even entire states, have just one multi-carrier hub. The majority of Internet traffic in Minnesota, for example, is routed through a single building across the street from the Mall of America Field in Minneapolis (Blum).   

Carrier hotels, like other network infrastructure, make special demands on city resources. The Lakeside Technology Center, a 1.1 million square foot data center located at 350 East Cermak in Chicago, is currently the second largest power customer for Commonwealth Edison, behind only O’Hare International Airport. In order to guarantee continued service for its customers (and the millions of network users they serve), Lakeside maintains more than 50 generators throughout the building, fueled by multiple 30,000-gallon tanks of diesel fuel. Despite its size, one of the founding developers of Lakeside, Doug Humphrey, guesses the site only represents between one to three percent of all the data/colocation space worldwide (Miller).
Data in New York City

New York City’s network shares similarities with other cities in the United States, but its high concentration of data-intensive industries and leading role as one as Saskia Sassen’s global cities leads to increased broadband demands and a special role in the regional and national network, as more transoceanic and transcontinental lines meet here than any other city in the country (Blum).

Los Angeles may have the most valuable network space in the country at One Wilshire, but in New York, data and real estate are even more intertwined. In an overheated retail market where space is at a premium, broadband speeds become top selling points for corporate realtors. “If the value of real estate in the traditional urban fabric is determined by location, location, location (as property pundits never tire of repeating), then the value of a network connection is determined by bandwidth, bandwidth, bandwidth” (Mitchell 17). William Mitchell wrote the above quote in 1995, when the value of geographic location was assumed to be receding in the advent of ubiquitous computing. In the case of New York City, real estate value now seems highly dependent on both factors.

Recently, for example, the tech company Google made a $1.9 billion purchase of 111 8th Avenue, a high profile carrier hotel which houses major companies like Digital Realty Trust (the owner of Lakeside), Equinix (which owns several of the carrier hotels around One Wilshire), Telx, and others.  The building, which covers an entire city block, was originally constructed for the Port Authority in 1932. It saw new life when it was redeveloped for telecom use in the late 1990’s. Though only about a quarter of its 2.8 million square feet are dedicated to data and colocation, its status as an intensely wired building enables office space which may be rented and sold at a premium, whether it is to telecom or other industry tenants. Most tech companies like Google run their data centers in suburban and rural areas, due to the lower costs of energy and land (these centers have their own unique spatial and economic impacts on their localities, but due to corporate secrecy, many are not very accessible (Holmes)). Google, with its increasing interest in the telecommunications space, may have its own reasons for becoming the landlord for some of North America’s largest telecom companies.

Several of the most important data centers for New York City (and therefore the entire Northeast) are located further downtown. 32 Avenue of the Americas, a landmarked building just south of Canal, hosts dozens of companies on its 24th floor “meet-me” room. This building also had a past in communications, as evidenced by the mosaic extolling radio and telephone wires in its lobby. The building was originally known as the AT&T Long Distance Building, but underwent extensive renovation in the early 2000’s to become a full-featured data center. It currently hosts around 50 customers, ranging from universities to the United States Military and its contractors. 

Telephone wires and radio unite
to make neighbors of nations
- 32 Avenue of the Americas

32 Avenue of the Americas again highlights the ability of data centers to function smoothly in a variety of sites - even landmarked buildings. Aside from its landmark status, the building has no special zonings or otherwise notable entries in the city’s land use map. Unless one notices the high number of electrical work permits filed with the Department of Buildings or the intensive rooftop cooling structures and microwave antennae, it blends in with the surrounding fabric.

Only a short distance away, the building at 60 Hudson has a similar background and architectural style. Originally the headquarters of Western Union, the building was adapted from telegraphs to telecommunications, now hosting over 100 companies. Like Lakeside, 60 Hudson requires extensive generating power. The building underwent public scrutiny in 2006, when the owners requested a variance in the building code to store additional 275-gallon diesel tanks on six floors. While this was only a slight modification to fuel storage rules, neighborhood activists were dismayed to find that over 80,000 gallons of diesel fuel were being stored in a dense residential neighborhood. The representative to Congress for the neighborhood of TriBeCa stated he would like the fuel stored elsewhere, but because 60 Hudson is an important, if not the most important junction for data traffic in the city, it is unlikely that the fuel will move.
Rooftop antennas and cooling at
32 Avenue of the Americas [coresite]

Two other notable hubs sit nearby, 375 Pearl Street, better known as the Verizon Building, and 33 Thomas Street, also known as the AT&T Long Lines Building. Both buildings are important hubs for telephone operations. Unlike the other sites in New York City, which are older and originally built for different purposes, 375 Pearl and 33 Thomas both have a distinctive architectural form specifically tailored for telecommunications. In this regard, they are what Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown would label “ducks,” that is, their forms advertise their function. In an interesting turn of events however, 375 Pearl, under new ownership, may see a full conversion into a new colocation and data center (Miller). 

33 Thomas is an especially important node for New York City’s communications network. It was built to withstand nuclear attack and is equipped to run without outside electricity for up to two weeks [Dankwa].  During the September 11th attacks, both buildings were essential for restoring AT&T and Verizon’s services, as both companies lost offices and equipment and essential city services lost the ability to communicate effectively [Yoo]. Their centrality and size creates risks however, as witnessed in 1991 when a 6 hour power outage at 33 Thomas grounded air traffic at all three of New York’s major airports, delaying thousands of passengers (Lee). Though more redundancy has been built into the network since these and other events, there is still the danger that a disruption at one site can cause issues throughout the network.

Shortcomings: Access, equity, and ways forward

Patchwork access to fiber optic lines, New York City 2010 []

Aside from the local, physical issues these sites can impose on their surroundings, the service they provide can also prove problematic. As Stephen Graham and others point out, network construction favors the already powerful, exacerbating issues of inequality. “High capacity broadband networks, for example, are tending to be constructed first in high-demand metropolitan spaces and corridors.” (33) These urban data centers all have one thing in common: their proximity to existing institutions and businesses. For a planner, they also pose a challenging contradiction: they bring resources and money into cities, but do not require much in the way of staff to stay operational. The carrier hotels surrounding One Wilshire may be extremely valuable in real estate terms, but the neighborhood surrounding this data center cluster is largely empty.  While the Internet offers incredible opportunities for citizen empowerment, the physical limitations of broadband networks currently restrict this effect to neighborhoods and regions with access and ability to navigate these high-speed networks.

The hubs which served telephone lines in the past are as essential now as they were then, perhaps even more so. The difference is in what motivates their construction and expansion. As long as construction of the network is motivated by profit, the poorest residents of our cities will be last to gain reliable, affordable, and fast broadband access. As Dominique Lorrain writes, “these new developments in urbanization move cities from the realm of megalopolis, corridors, or urban regions, characterized by sprawling, urbanized spaces, to that of an archipelago, where cities represent islands concentrating activities and exchanges.” (18) Even within cities, we see this archipelago effect. A quick glance at the fiber optic map above indicates that the network does not treat all geography equally.

A panel on the Network City at Cooper Union recently discussed the empowering benefits of access to power and a stronger voice in community issues. One subject that continually arose, however, was: Who lives in this Networked City? According to Anthony Townsend, most people do not live there yet. If network development thus far is not inclusive, what is the way forward? What ways can we make our networks support citizens with the least power traditionally?

As noted by the Federal Communication Commission, the United States, with an average download rate of 4 megabits per second, ranks 15th in the world for Internet connection speeds. The FCC has set goals to bring true high-speed Internet to 90% of the country’s population by 2020. It is unclear, however, how this will happen. Currently, development plans include incentives for existing telecom companies as well as voluntary donations of valuable broadband spectrum. This public-private partnership is just beginning, making it difficult to judge its progress.
New York City has also begun to address the “digital divide” that may be most striking within its own city limits. The Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications’ most recent annual report includes plans to partner with private providers to improve access and adoption for lower-income residents and seniors. Because New York City is such a wired metropolis, most equity issues stem from high prices and few education resources rather than a true infrastructural deficit. 

The network we’ve constructed in New York City, as well as it may serve business, government, and institutions, was not built for residents. Are there options beyond the current business-dominated model? Google is attempting a fresh attempt at providing good citywide data infrastructure starting this year in Kansas City, Kansas. Google’s goal is to offer speeds of about 1 gigabit per second, brining fiber optic cable service directly to consumers’ homes. 

In Utah, several cities, representing a population of about 500,000, have partnered to form the Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency, or UTOPIA. This network is built by municipal governments, and funded and owned by the cities’ taxpayers. Like Google, UTOPIA does not provide Internet service, but allows companies to compete on its network, hopefully driving down costs through competition. It will be interesting to see whether Google or UTOPIA can create a successful new model for network development, which will favor individuals over corporations and institutions. 

Data centers, hubs, and networks are increasingly important to our daily lives, yet perhaps the greatest issue with our network today is its invisibility. Saskia Sassen recently wrote 
I have long thought that all the major infrastructures in a city—from sewage to electricity and broadband—should be encased in transparent walls and floors at certain crossroads, such as bus stops or public squares. If you can actually see it all, you can get engaged. Today, when walls are pregnant with software, why not make this visible? All of our computerized systems should become transparent. The city would become literally a publicly shared domain.

One Wilshire, Robert Sumrell and Kazys Varnelis write, only reveals its complexity and indispensability through the cryptic marks on the pavement surrounding the building which mark the many fiber connections running in and out of the site. In New York City, our data flows through landmarked prewar skyscrapers in the Financial District and Midtown. It is doubtful that an average passerby recognizes the power wrapped up in these often-mundane urban sites.  For citizens to engage with their network cities, they need an understanding of how it all works. Andrew Blum agrees with Sassen, stating, “we should be paying more attention to the provenance of our bits. I think the analogy with food is strong: the first step towards more sustainable agriculture is merely knowing—and caring-- where your food comes from. Why can’t the same be true of our connections?” 

A person or group’s ability to navigate and take advantage of local, regional, and global data networks will largely define agency and power in 21st century cities. A first step forward is to reveal some of the very physical and geographic underpinnings of this ever-growing and evolving system. 

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AuthorChris Hamby