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How Sweden helped build the internet

The Local discovers the untold history of how a little known Swedish Viking laid the foundations for the modern internet.

How Sweden helped build the internet
Photo: Pixabay

It isn’t every day you get the chance to sit down with one of the world’s leading authorities on the internet. But that’s exactly what Mattias Fridström is.

After all, you don’t get to be ‘Chief Evangelist’ for a world-leading Swedish telecom firm if you don’t know a thing or two about the internet.

“My job is to make the concept of internet connectivity come alive,” he explains.

“I try to spread the word about the network economy and explain what's being done to ensure your content is working on the internet. It's my mission to explain the challenges facing the internet of tomorrow and what's being done to address them.”

  Don't be surprised if you've never heard of Telia Carrier. You don't usually encounter the brand when you're walking down the street, browsing the aisles at a shop, or scrolling through your Facebook feed.

But the fact is, if you're online, you depend on this little-known Swedish company to make your life happen.

Why?

Because Telia Carrier — a modern descendant of Televerket, Sweden's 150-plus-year-old telecom monopoly — operates a huge chunk of the internet's backbone; the nerve centre through which data and information critical to countless daily functions flow.

The journey from state-owned telegraph service to critical connector of the 21st-century global communications web was a long and complicated one, stemming from a mix of innovation, good timing, and a commitment to connectivity.

Find out how Sweden is powering the internet's data centers

“I think Swedish mentality has always been ‘There’s too few of us to live off our own country’s resources’, so from the start people knew if they wanted to make it big they would have to make it outside of Sweden,” explains Mattias.

“Our market is too small to be big! So connectivity has always been very important. If you want to create a successful international business, you have to have  great connectivity.”

The Viking Network

Fittingly, there is a Viking twist to how this Swedish company came to be a dominant player in global connectivity.

Having invested heavily in connecting Sweden and Scandinavia, Telia Carrier continued with the international expansion of what came to be dubbed “The Viking Network”: a wholly-owned fiber optic network that boasted end-to-end connectivity from California to Russia by 2001.

And it was the building of the Viking Network — a bold and risky bet that many questioned at the time — which evolved into what is now Telia Carrier’s big internet backbone. From humble Swedish origins, Telia Carrier went on to become the internet. 

Or rather, it’s part of a handful of networks (known as Tier 1 networks) that are at the top of the internet “food chain”. These behemoths – which include names like Level(3), Cogent, NTT, and GTT– serve the largest portion of traffic to customers around the world.

“We are one of the networks that make up the internet, and as we are currently ranked number one in the DYN rankings, that actually makes us the most important network for ensuring the internet works”, explains Mattias. “In simple terms, we connect the companies that publish content on the internet with the companies that serve end-users who want to consume that content.”

And it’s in the interest of those “content people”, like YouTube and Spotify, to set up shop close to a Tier 1 network. That’s because a direct connection to the internet’s backbone, as opposed to traffic “hopping” from one network to another, provides end users with the fastest and most reliable connection.

'Connectivity is key'

Any company that needs to store its data in purpose-built data centers should also consider its proximity to a Tier 1 network. It’s one of the reasons companies such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), Facebook and BMW have chosen to set up data center operations in Sweden.

“We make sure wherever companies are building data centers, we’re there to serve them with connectivity. The data centers require a lot of green energy so they need a cold climate, and ideally somewhere where there are no natural disasters,” Mattias explains.

“The Nordics are ideal for this, and that’s where we come in. We make sure the data centers are connected to our network and thereby connect their services in the data centers to the end users who could be based in Europe or the US.”

Read more about Telia's internet backbone

Connectivity is key to Mattias, and it’s clear why – when he explains the role – he believes it plays in innovation.

“When people start to innovate things and then are able to share their ideas quickly with loads of people or share big files very fast, that’s when connectivity breeds innovation. When you’re super well-connected to the world you can share and receive a lot of ideas, and then it’s easier to innovate. So connectivity is crucial, the days when you sat alone thinking of ideas that took years to develop are long gone.”

That’s why Mattias speculates as to why there have been so many unicorns (a startup company valued at over $1 billion) to come out of Sweden.

“As Telia and Sweden as a country were very early in building fibre cables, this meant there was a great deal of connectivity at a very early stage. So I think it’s part of the reason we have such a fantastic community, especially in Stockholm where a lot of startups have been extremely successful. I think the number of unicorns in this area is incredible, and part of that is because of the great connectivity.”

Managing risk, four furry legs at a time

Mattias also credits the success of Swedish unicorns like Skype, Spotify, and Klarna to entrepreneurial Swedes recognising the importance of connectivity. And these days more and more companies are almost entirely reliant on a reliable internet connection.

“There are companies that only exist on the internet,” says Mattias. “These companies can’t even operate if there’s a problem on the network and the internet is down. Good connectivity is critical, even life-critical in some cases.”

Indeed, the connectivity that makes so much of modern life possible comes with different risks.

“The whole internet is made up of these networks, and malware can easily spread. Companies could easily go bankrupt after just a few days, so it’s important the internet is always up and running,” he explains.

“This is a risk for the entire internet at any given time. And of course, it's a risk we have to consider and we work actively to limit that risk.”

Learn more about connectivity and Sweden's data centers

Another important factor is the actual physical protection required to maintain the internet.

“I think people really take the network for granted. They don’t understand how difficult it is, how many cables there are and how many things can happen to them. There are people working 24 hours a day to make sure the cables are maintained. And you also have quite a lot of animals that would happily chew through a cable!”

But what type of animal could possibly chew through thick fibre optic cables?

“There is actually a site on the web that lists squirrels as the biggest threat to the internet. They bite right through the cables. Sooner or later cables come up to ground level and go into a building, and if you're not careful enough these small animals come in and chew off anything they can.”

Photo: Pixabay

This article was produced by The Local Client Studio and sponsored by Data Centers by Sweden.
 

VIKING

How a Viking king inspired one of our best-known modern technologies

A Swede and American tell the story of how they hatched the idea for the moniker 'Bluetooth' over beers.

A Danish 16th-century paining of Viking king Harald Bluetooth
A Danish 16th-century paining of Viking king Harald Bluetooth. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

At the end of the 1990s, Sven Mattisson, a Swedish engineer working at telecom group Ericsson, and Jim Kardach, an American employed by Intel, were among those developing the revolutionary technology.

In 1998, at the dawn of the “wireless” era, the two men were part of an international consortium that created a universal standard for the technology first developed by Ericsson in 1994.

But prior to that, they had struggled to pitch their wireless products. Intel had its Biz-RF wireless programme, Ericsson had MC-Link, while Nokia had its Low Power RF. Kardach, Mattisson and others presented their ideas at a seminar in Toronto in late 1997.

“Jim and I said that people did not appreciate what we presented,” Mattisson, now 65 and winding down his career at Ericsson, recalled in a recent interview with AFP.

The engineer, who had travelled all the way to Canada from Sweden for the one-hour pitch, decided to hang out with Kardach for the evening before flying home.

“We received a lukewarm reception of our confusing proposal, and it was at this time I realised we needed a codename for the project which everyone could use,” Kardach explained in a long account on his webpage.

‘Chauvinistic story’

To drown their sorrows, the two men headed for a local Toronto bar and ended up talking about history, one of Kardach’s passions. “We had some beers… and Jim is interested in history so he asked me about Vikings, so we talked at length about that,” said Mattisson, admitting that his recollection of that historic night is now somewhat foggy.

Kardach said all he knew about Vikings was that they ran “around with horned helmets raiding and looting places, and that they were crazy chiefs.”

Mattisson recommended Kardach read a well-known Swedish historical novel about the Vikings, entitled “The Long Ships”.

Set in the 10th century – “a chauvinistic story” about a boy taken hostage by Vikings, says Mattisson – one name in the book caught Kardach’s attention: that of the king of Denmark, Harald “Bluetooth” Gormsson.

A Bluetooth adapter from 2004. Photo: Stefan Gustavsson/SvD/TT

Unification

An important historic figure in Scandinavia in the 10th century, the king of Denmark’s nickname is said to refer to a dead tooth, or, as other tales have it, to his liking for blueberries or even a simple translation error.

During his reign, Denmark turned its back on its pagan beliefs and Norse gods, gradually converting to Christianity.

But he is best known for having united Norway and Denmark in a union that lasted until 1814.

A king who unified Scandinavian rivals – the parallel delighted those seeking to unite the PC and cellular industries with a short-range wireless link.

And the reference to the king goes beyond the name: the Bluetooth logo, which at first glance resembles a geometric squiggle, is in fact a superimposition of the runes for the letters “H” and “B”, the king’s initials.

Low-cost and with low power consumption, Bluetooth was finally launched in May 1998, using technology allowing computer devices to communicate with each other in short range without fixed cables.

The first consumer device equipped with the technology hit the market in 1999, and its name, which was initially meant to be temporary until something better was devised, became permanent.

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