The Broadband Internet (COMN 4520)



COMN 4520 – Fall/Winter 2017 — version 1.0 – subject to minor changes

  • Instructor: David Ellis, PhD
  • jdae (at) yorku (dot) ca (emails answered during bus hrs only: M-F, 9-6)
  • Student consultations by appointment

“Just deliver the bits, stupid.” —David Isenberg, 1998


Course Description

This course is devoted to understanding the global public Internet and how it works. Unlike some Communication Studies courses, our focus is not on network content but network platforms — and on the enabling technologies that make the Internet an engineering and cultural marvel. We also devote much of the winter semester to examining social issues related to online life, especially privacy and security.

Our approach to the course topics is evidence-based. We consider factual and quasi-factual information from many sources, including numerical data from regulatory decisions, consumer surveys and market forecasts. The main purpose is to develop a critical framework for assessing the competing claims of actors in the communications industry, including network operators, government agencies and consumer advocates. A second purpose is to make students more keenly aware of how digital technologies influence their day-to-day welfare. The course follows current events closely. No prior technical knowledge is required, just a willingness to work hard on understanding new material.

Course goals

By taking this course, you will:

  • Be amazed at what you can accomplish after ditching your phone
  • Learn how the Internet actually works
  • Keep up with current events that affect your life online
  • Appreciate why an open Internet is crucial to your future
  • Take online security and privacy a lot more seriously
  • Develop skills for the job market
  • Become a smarter tech consumer
  • Get detailed feedback on your work

Downloads (PDFs)


 Required Readings

They’re called “required” readings because all students are required to read them – and to do so by the stipulated deadline. In order to encourage timely coverage of the course materials, students keep an official notebook containing their reading and discussion notes, which are vetted regularly by the instructor (the class notebook counts for 20% of the final grade). The required readings are all available free in html or pdf, as indicated in the schedule below. We supplement the core readings with contextual material drawn from online sources, particularly Benton’s Communications-related Headlines, which requires a free subscription.



Weekly Outline & Reading Schedule

< Fall Semester >

Tue Sept 12 (#1) — Orientation: course structure, grading scheme, student responsibilities

Tue Sept 19 (#2) — The importance of measurement

Reading (R1): Pew Research Center, Social Media Update 2016, pp.1-11 (Nov 2016 – pdf)

Tue Sept 26 (#3)  When computers couldn’t talk

Reading (R2): Jay Hauben, “The Computer as a Communications Device: Wiener and Licklider and the Internet” (Jan 2008 – pdf)

Tue Oct 3 (#4) — When stupid is smart

Reading (R3): David Isenberg, “The Dawn of the Stupid Network” (1998)

Tue Oct 10 (#5) — The TCP/IP protocol suite (1/3) 

Reading (R4a): Severance videos (2012) #1-3 – Overview (25 min), Link layer (10 min), Internetwork (IP) layer (38 min)

Tue Oct 17 (#6)  The TCP/IP protocol suite (2/3)

Reading (R4b): Severance videos (2012) #4-7 – Transport (TCP) layer (15 min), Transport (TCP) layer summary (4 min), Security layer (23 min), Application layer (26 min)

Tue Oct 24 (#7) — The TCP/IP protocol suite (3/3) 

Reading (R5): Benton Headlines TBD

Tue Oct 31 (#8) — Measuring traffic on global IP networks

Reading (R6): Cisco Systems, Cisco Visual Networking Index: Forecast and Methodology, 2016–2021 (June 2017 – pdf)

In-class dicussion using Cisco’s VNI Forecast Tools

Tue Nov 7 (#9) — Hyperconnectivity

Reading (R7): Cisco Systems, The Zettabyte Era: Trends and Analysis (June 2017 – pdf)

Tue Nov 14 (#10) — The future is fiber

Reading (R8): Cisco, Networking 101: What are Fiber Optics? (Feb 2012 – YouTube video)

Tue Nov 21 (#11) — Broadband and the last mile

Reading (R9): Pew Internet, Home Broadband 2015 (Dec 2015: pdf)

Tue Nov 28 (#12) — Peering and transit: how the big networks operate

Reading (R10): Wikipedia entry on Peering


< Winter Semester >

Tue Jan 9 (#13) — It’s an algorithmic world (1)

Reading (R11): Danah Boyd, It’s Complicated: the social lives of networked teens, 2014, pp. 183-192 (The Politics of Algorithms + Wikipedia as a Site of Knowledge Production: pdf)

Tue Jan 16 (#14) — It’s an algorithmic world (2)

Reading (R12): Pew Research Center, Code-Dependent: Pros and Cons of the Algorithm Age (Feb 2017 – pdf)

Tue Jan 23 (#15) — The inherent insecurity of computer networks

Reading (R13): Akamai, State of the Internet: Security (Q1-2017 – pdf)

Tue Jan 30 (#16) — Get off of my cloud (1) 

Reading (R14): L. Malhotra et al., “Virtualization in Cloud Computing,” J Inform Tech Softw Eng 2014, 4:2 (pdf)

Tue Feb 6 (#17) — Get off of my cloud (2)

Reading (R15): Bruce Schneier, “Should Companies Do Most of Their Computing in the Cloud?” — Parts OneTwoThree (June 2015)

Tue Feb 13 (#18) — The Internet of Things (IoT) 

Reading (R16): Bruce Schneier, “The Internet of Things Is Wildly Insecure—And Often Unpatchable,” Wired (Jan 2014) 

Reading (R17): Bruce Schneier, Regulating the Internet of Things, IGP video (47 min – April 2017)


 < Tue Feb 20 – Reading Week – No Class >

Tue Feb 27 (#19) — Digital security issues for Canadians

Reading (R18): Tamir Israel and Chris Parsons, Canada’s National Security Consultation: Digital Anonymity & Subscriber Identification Revisited… Yet Again (Oct 2016 – pdf)

Tue Mar 6 (#20) — Privacy and security for the end-user (1)

In-class discussion on VPNs

Tue Mar 13 (#21) — Privacy and security for the end-user (2)

Reading (R19): Miles Kenyon, Citizen Lab, U of T, Protect your Digital Presence with Secure Accounts (Aug 2017)

Tue Mar 20 (#22) — Privacy and security in the news

Reading (R20): Current stories from Benton Headlines

Tue Mar 27 (#23) — Review and housekeeping

Exam and attendance review, notebook grading, course evals

Tue Apr 3 (#24) — In-class final exam: 3 hrs