What is the Internet, exactly? To some of us, the Internet is where we stay in touch with friends, get the news, shop, and play games. To some others, the Internet can mean their local broadband providers, or the underground wires and fiber-optic cables that carry data back and forth across cities and oceans. Who is right?

A helpful place to start is near the Very Beginning: 1974. That was the year that a few smart computer researchers invented something called the Internet Protocol Suite, or TCP/IP for short. TCP/IP created a set of rules that allowed computers to “talk” to each other and send information back and forth.

TCP/IP is somewhat like human communication: when we speak to each other, the rules of grammar provide structure to language and ensure that we can understand each other and exchange ideas. Similarly, TCP/IP provides the rules of communication that ensure interconnected devices understand each other so that they can send information back and forth. As that group of interconnected devices grew from one room to many rooms — and then to many buildings, and then to many cities and countries — the Internet was born.

The early creators of the Internet discovered that data and information could be sent more efficiently when broken into smaller chunks, sent separately, and reassembled. Those chunks are called packets. So when you send an email across the Internet, your full email message is broken down into packets, sent to your recipient, and reassembled. The same thing happens when you watch a video on a website like YouTube: the video files are segmented into data packets that can be sent from multiple YouTube servers around the world and reassembled to form the video that you watch through your browser.

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