Manhole covers are one point of entry into the city's underground world, and their designs indicate what part of that world they connect to. Here are some manhole covers that might help you identify pieces of the internet.
Empire City Subway
Empire City Subway was formed in 1891 to construct and maintain tubes for telegraph and telephone cables ('subway' referring to anything under the ground, not just transportation networks). ECS now leases space in those conduits to telecommunications companies. They own approximately 11,000 manholes and 58 million feet of conduit. The New York Telephone Company (also known as Bell Atlantic New York) was ECS' original primary shareholder. Through the dark alchemy of mergers and acquisitions in the telecommunications industry, ECS is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Verizon.
Time Warner Cable
Time Warner Cable as we know it began its existence in 1992. They launched one of the first high speed cable internet services in 1996 before separating from its parent company, Time Warner, in 2009. Time Warner Cable's franchise agreement with the city of New York dates back to 1997, so presumably these manhole covers appeared sometime between 1997 and now.
Level 3 Communications
Level 3 Communications began trading on NASDAQ in 1998 and received its franchise to build a fiber optic network in New York City in 1999. They are a major Tier 1 network, which means that their network has a direct connection to every other network online without paying fees to do so. In 2012, Level 3 received a $411 million contract from the Department of Defense's Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) to provide fiber cable and maintenance support to DoD networks. This is just something that is interesting to know.
are structures set below ground that protect telecommunications cables, providing convenient access for splicing or pulling cable. You have probably walked by lots of pull boxes before and not really know what they do.
Sometimes you'll see a manhole cover that is surrounded with colorful markings. Whenever a contractor or construction company plans to do street excavation, utility companies will mark out the location of their underground cables so that the contractor knows to watch out for them.
There's a federal color-code standard for sidewalk markings. New York follows that standard. Orange refers to the broad catch-all of "Communications, alarm, signal lines, cables and conduit." This means that orange lines can be internet cables, television cables, telephone lines, or other kinds of conduits. The markings are sometimes really sloppy, and often in fragments. Sometimes you'll see several different labels in the same place. A lot of these cables are bundled up together running through ducts under the city.
What it sounds like—cable television.
NextG Networks received a franchise agreement in 2008 to install wireless infrastructure on city-owned poles for their distributed antenna system (DAS--see Distributed Antenna System in Cell Towers). The agreement also permits the company to install fiber below ground “for purposes of connecting Base Stations installed on Street Poles to one another or to a supporting telecommunications system.” These fiber markings are often near street poles or emerging from street poles. In 2011, NextG was acquired by mobile infrastructure company Crown Castle International.
Telephone cables (presumably copper or coaxial.)
This means basically what it sounds like--the cable underground isn't very deep below the pavement. Possibly linked to microtrenching.
Sign of Empire City Subway ducts. which hold cables belonging to a variety of different companies for a variety of different uses (telephone, television, internet).
RCN is an internet service provider and a television cable provider. They're the 10th-largest ISP in the country. It is unclear if a cable marked "RCN" is actually a cable that belongs to RCN because of some mergers & acquisitions dark magic that happened over the last few years. Currently, RCN has a franchise agreement with the city as an "open video system". This is different from a cable provider, but the franchise agreements are pretty similar. In 2001, Con Edison announced that they were creating their own fiber optic network, managed by the holding company Con Edison Communications. In 2006, RCN acquired Con Edison Communications for $32 million. RCN was acquired by private equity firm Abry Partners in 2010, which repackaged and rebranded its metro area operations (which managed the former Con Ed fiber network) as Sidera Networks. Sidera merged with Lightower Networks in 2013, after both companies were acquired by Berkshire Partners in 2012.
The telecommunications company currently owned by Verizon.
Level 3 Communications, an internet service provider.
XO Communications was founded in 1994 and, like many network providers that built fiber-optic networks during the first tech bubble, experienced financial meltdown in the early 2000s. It emerged from bankruptcy in 2003 with well-known activist shareholder Carl Icahn as its majority shareholder and board chairman. Icahn orchestrated a massive 2008 refinancing of XO's debt (90% of which Icahn owns) and took the company private in 2011. XO's minority shareholders have accused Icahn of using XO's financial losses as tax benefits for other companies Icahn owns. A lawsuit brought in 2009 by these shareholders is ongoing.
FO indicates a fiber optic cable. A novice street marking reader might assume it refers to Verizon FiOs, but "fiber optic" doesn't necessarily mean what we think of as "internet"--private companies maintain their own networks, as do city agencies and institutions. And lots of things can run over fiber-VoIP, television, and the internet can all run over fiber cables. In general, where you see telephone cables, you'll also see other kinds of cables, including fiber.
AT&T has been a presence in New York City since the first cable ducts were organized under Consolidated Telegraph & Electrical Subway Co. Formed as a corporation under the Bell Telephone Company to build a nationwide long-distance network, AT&T's first network connected Chicago and New York in 1892. While this field guide might not be the place for AT&T and the Bell System's voluminous history, traces of that history are all over New York City in buildings like the Long Lines building at 33 Thomas Street, a switching center at 811 Tenth Avenue, and its former Long Lines building at 32 Avenue of the Americas, now a major convergence and colocation center for networks.
Tracking things on the ground can sometimes be tricky--markings and manhole covers get worn down and faded, they're sometimes in the middle of the road, and it's easy to bump into things when looking down all the time. Here are some other objects that indicate pieces of the network.
Traffic Signal Controllers
These dark green signal control boxes attached to traffic signal posts are just one piece of a massive system of networked objects. The system, designed by the North Carolina-based transit services company TransitScore, combines data collected by real-time traffic cameras, RFID (radio frequency identification) scanners, and other field sensors to create traffic signal times that adapt to the immediate conditions of traffic. Each signal control box contains wireless routing equipment and traffic controllers that connect back to a fiber hub. The little green dome on top of the signal control is actually a powerful wireless router used for communicating with the other sensors in the traffic network and the city’s Traffic Management Center in Long Island City.
This system, initially piloted in 2011 and slowly rolled out to the city’s over 12,500 traffic signals, relies heavily on NYCWiN, the city-wide broadband wireless network project initially created for emergency first responders. Construction of the network began in 2006 under a $500 million contract with defense contractor Northrop Grumman ($20 million of which came from a DHS grant), and the network became operational in 2009. Many regarded the project as a failure given its limited use (primarily by the Department of Transportation and the Department of Environmental Protection rather than law enforcement) and exorbitant cost (around $40 million annually just to maintain). The city tried to sell the network back to Northrop Grumman in 2011, but the contractor didn’t want it.
Despite NYCWin’s shortcomings supporting law enforcement, their use in the city’s traffic systems has made it fantastically easy to share traffic data with law enforcement rapidly and seamlessly.
Distributed Antenna Systems
A Distributed Antenna System (DAS) is basically a way to expand a cell network's reach, adding capacity in under-covered areas. They're a little easier to find on the street because they're not on top of buildings--they're attached to street poles and linked to underground fiber-optic networks. If you ever see an orange cable marking going into a street pole, look up. You'll probably see a DAS. There are 7 companies with franchise agreements to maintain Distributed Antenna Systems in New York; however, 3 of those companies appear to belong to one company (Crown Castle) and 2 appear to be subsidiaries of the same company (ExteNet Systems).
Subway Wifi Devices
In 2007, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) began working with contractor Transit Wireless on building out a fiber-optic network to support wifi access on subway platforms. The system works similarly to a DAS--signals from wireless carrier base stations are converted by Transit Wireless into optical signals, which are sent to RF nodes in individual stations. The RF node then distributes that signal to antennae in the station. The pilot program began trials in 2011. As of summer 2014, 47 of the city's 278 stations had wifi access.
If you're connecting to the internet when you're out in the world, you're probably connecting to a cellular wireless network. Seeing the internet on the street, for many, just means using a smartphone. Those phones connect to networks via cell towers. Generally, these are pretty hard to see from the street--they're mostly on tops of buildings. They're also often disguised, although their New York disguises (bricks on buildings) are pretty simple compared to cell tower disguises in other places (trees, church crosses, cacti).
Admittedly, much of this guide has focused on seeing internet-connected networks in the field--networks that, for the most part, the reader has access to. But the city is also full of networked objects that, while often serving a public interest, aren't connected to public networks. These sensors vary from monitoring vehicular traffic to recording water usage. Surveillance cameras are perhaps one of the more noticeable--and contested--forms of networked objects in public space. The public "connects" to surveillance networks all the time, albeit involuntarily, and this section offers a view into who controls some of the ubiquitous networks.
Many intersections in New York City have a horizontally polarized panel antenna (the device on the left in the illustration above). These devices broadcast and receive radio signals. In this context, they’re used to read radio frequency identification (RFID) devices embedded in EZ-Pass devices. Technically EZ-Pass is used for toll collection, but these and other sensor devices collect data from RFIDs for traffic monitoring purposes.
The city Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) operate traffic cameras at, respectively, 723 intersections and 20 bridge and tunnel entrances. The DOT cameras have video streams that can be viewed at www.nyctmc.org.
It's unclear exactly when the MTA began installing closed-circuit television cameras on some subway platforms, but their efforts to expand that camera network ramped up dramatically after September 11, 2001. The MTA has 4,313 cameras operating throughout the transit system, with 1,576 cameras on city buses. Data collected by cameras feeds back to MTA Rail Control Centers, located in various parts of the city.
The New York City Police Department has a few thousand labeled surveillance cameras in their Argus program. I don't have an exact number. They wouldn't tell me when I filed a Freedom of Information request because having a list of all the camera locations would encourage crime. As this is not a field guide to the labyrinth of insanity that is NYPD's FOIL policies, perhaps we should not discuss the matter further.
I've only seen these cameras in lower Manhattan, and pretty much only around federal buildings. They appear to belong to the Department of Homeland Security, and are manufactured by a company named Total Recall Corporation. (Not even joking.)
Most private cameras connect to a larger network for a single building's security system. Some (at least 2,000) feed into the NYPD's Domain Awareness System.
There are a few well-known locations that people tend to go to when they want to "see the internet" in New York. Of course, there are plenty of not-so-famous buildings in Manhattan that store lots of data and connect networks to each other. Identifying these buildings when looking on the street is not always easy, but one telltale sign is to look for signs of ventilation and cooling systems. Alternatively, look for windows, or more accurately, the absence of them. (Note: on much larger buildings, in particular skyscrapers, vents also could just be a sign of a mechanical floor, the centralized space dedicated to maintaining utility needs for the entire building.)
New infrastructures have a tendency to inherit the homes of past infrastructures, and the internet is no exception. Many of the major internet exchanges and data centers of Manhattan are in buildings that used to be telegraph switches, telephone company headquarters, and other industrial spaces. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, these are a few interesting starting points from which you can start looking for cable markings, cameras, or other signs of internet infrastructure.
From its inception, 60 Hudson has been a central point for connecting New York City to the rest of the world. Built 1928-1930 to be the headquarters for telegraph company Western Union (designed by architect Ralph Walker of the firm of Voorhees, Gmelin and Walker), the Deco building was home to some 70 million feet of cable (it has even more now). It has the largest concentration of connections to transatlantic cables on the East Coast.
For more on 60 Hudson and its place among carrier hotels, check out the short film Bundled, Buried, and Behind Closed Doors by Ben Mendelsohn and Alex Cholas-Wood.
111 Eighth Avenue
Built in 1932 to be a Port Authority warehouse/transport center and later Port Authority offices, 111 Eighth Avenue was turned into a carrier hotel in 1998 by Taconic Investment Partners. In 2010, Google purchased the building for nearly $2 billion. While Google uses a majority of the building for its own office space, the carrier hotel and a number of ISPs, startups, and ground-level retail remains. It's the largest data center in New York City.
As of this writing, there are a lot of orange cable markings extending from and going into the area around 111 Eighth Avenue. Its neighborhood footprint extends to the west, with office space in nearby Chelsea Market (also home to the NYPD Intelligence Division) and 85 Tenth Avenue (home to the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force and a Level 3 Communications colocation center). Defense contractor Palantir recently acquired space nearby on 15th Street. This is just kind of cool to know I guess.
32 Avenue of the Americas
Similar to 60 Hudson and 111 Eighth Avenue, 32 Avenue of the Americas is yet another building whose old infrastructure has been reappropriated by internet infrastructure. Built in 1932, 32 Avenue of the Americas was originally the AT&T Long Distance Building. In 1999 Rudin Management, a major New York real estate firm, purchased the building and turned into a carrier hotel. Designed by the same architecture firm that created 60 Hudson (Voorhees, Gmelin and Walker), 32 Avenue of the Americas is a similarly impressive Deco building. Highly recommend the mural in the lobby dedicated to the magic of telephony.
375 Pearl Street
Relatively younger and decidedly less Deco than other major connection points in Manhattan, 375 Pearl was build in 1975 as a switching station by the New York Telephone Company. Taconic Investment Partners (the same company that turned 111 Eighth Avenue into a carrier hotel) purchased the building in 2007, with grandiose plans to transform its much-derided windowless exterior and add new office space and condominiums. The economic collapse of 2008 pretty much killed that plan and 275 Pearl ended up being sold at a massive loss to Sabey Data Center Properties in 2011 (Verizon still uses some floors of the building). Sabey rechristened the building Intergate Manhattan, describing it in publicity materials as "the world's tallest data center."
Like 111 Eighth Avenue, 375 Pearl is made more remarkable in part by what's around it, or more specifically what surrounds it: as its next-door neighbor is NYPD headquarters 1 Police Plaza, the building has police checkpoints on pretty much every side. For a more detailed history and context of 375 Pearl check out Lance Wakeling's film "Views of a Former Verizon Building" online at privatecirculation.com.