The geography of cyberspace: Bandwidth key to 'distance'

March 27, 2000

University Park, Pa. --- The feeling of distance in cyberspace - how near or far away a site is - depends on bandwidth because it controls communication speed, says a Penn State information scientist and geographer.

Dr. Guoray Cai, assistant professor of information science and technology and assistant professor of geography, says, "Spatial relations of virtual communities in cyberspace do not correspond to geographical relations in a simple way. Variations in the access bandwidth generate feelings of distance because the higher the bandwidth, the shorter the time to wait in large transactions."

The concept of "near" or "far" between two entities in cyberspace depends on the maximum capacity of the communication channel they can set up for exchanging information, he notes. The faster the means of communication between them, the closer they will "feel," Cai contends.

This concept is important to consider in deciding whether gaps or holes exist in a region's telecommunications infrastructure, Cai points out. For example, he says, suppose that all the public high schools in the state of Pennsylvania are expected to be exchanging courses through distance learning networks. Schools that have access to the highest bandwidth facilities will "feel" closer and more like a "virtual community" than schools that don't.

"When the existing infrastructure cannot support the desired services from the consumer point of view, a gap or hole exists. But discovering these gaps cannot be done simply by counting the number of wire centers or fiber optic cables in a particular area," Cai says. The existing telecommunications infrastructure in a region can be biased towards serving certain categories of consumers, for example, businesses rather than schools. This means that an existing infrastructure that supports the networking of businesses may be inadequate to support an educational network which aims to connect schools, libraries and homes and provide the feeling of a close virtual community.

As a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh before joining the Penn State faculty last year, Cai helped develop the first comprehensive map of Pennsylvania's high-tech infrastructure with Dr. James Williams and Dr. Kenneth Sochats of Pitt's School of Information Sciences.

The map, The Pennsylvania Technology Atlas, is now available on the web at as well as . It was the first of its type in the United States and is now a model for other states seeking to create a similar resource.

Cai disagrees with the concept that because a person can log on to the Internet anywhere that the Web represents a timeless and spaceless way to travel on the information superhighway. He argues that geographical space and locations continue to play important roles in understanding cyberspace.

For example, he points out the strong tie that telecommunications infrastructure has to geography. The operation of cyberspace depends on access points and physical wires in real-world locations. Even wireless systems depend on receivers and transmitters that are located in physical space.

The Penn State researcher says the effects of geography on cyberspace are most readily seen on the physical level, the level of fiber optic networks, microwave radio relay towers, satellites and wires. However, he argues that on other levels, too, cyberspace has distinct geographical properties. On the network level, you can be minimally connected or maximally connected to a particular Internet site, depending on the reliability of your link to the Internet and the amount and type of traffic.

Geography plays the smallest role on the application level, Cai says, since it doesn't matter where you are when you log on to run a network application. The application level is where the concept that the Internet is "spaceless" holds most true. On the level of knowledge and action, however, where the information exchanged in cyberspace gets used and induces some real-world actions, local geographical effects again come into play.

"Most of the existing studies about the geography of cyberspace have focused on the knowledge and action level. The lack of attention to the properties of cyberspace on the physical and network levels has contributed to the myth that there is no "near" or "far" on the information superhighway," Cai says.

The researcher has detailed his findings in a paper, "Mapping the Geography of Cyberspace Using Telecommunications Infrastructure Information," presented last summer at the First International Workshop on Telegeoprocessing in Lyon, France. His co-authors are Dr. Stephen Hirtle and Dr. James G. Williams, both professors of information science at the University of Pittsburgh. His work was supported in part by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Education and the Governor's Office of Information Technology.
EDITORS: Dr. Cai is at (814) 865-4448 or by e-mail.

Penn State

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