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by Eolake Stobblehouse

The Importance Of Fiber Optics To The Internet
January 31st, 2001

The Speed of Light

The Internet is the fastest growing technology on the Earth today, and this is mainly possible because of fiber optics, the hair-thin glass wires that carry laser light communication signals around the globe.

Did you know that

  • The first high-speed communication networks used light? Semaphore* was practical before the wired telegraph was, and France had a widespread semaphore network almost two hundred years ago.
  • The first commercial optical fiber network was implemented as recently as 1977.
  • The light in the fiber optic wire is almost lossless because of the carefully calculated reflection factor between the glass core and the cladding of the fiber.
  • While the speed of processors double every 18 months, and the capacity of storage double every 12 months, the speed of optical networks doubles every 9 months.
  • The capacity for optical fiber communications is potentially 100,000 times or more that of the nearest rival for long distance, Satelite/microwave.
  • The venture funding for optical networking in 2000 was 4 billion dollars.
  • Scientist have no clue what the actual capacity of optical communication may actually be. It is not unthinkable that with advances over the next ten or twenty years, the amount of traffic on the whole of the Internet today might be carried in a single hair-thin fiber.

Fiber optics is damn important technology. Mankind's future depends upon the effectiveness of his communications. That is expanded today mainly by the Internet, and that is being carried forward not the least by installation of optical networks, and advances in the technology.

Important advances have been in the purity of the fibers themselves, so the light signal can travel as far as possible without being amplified. This has been advanced to about 80 kilometers today, something which is quite amazing considering the thinness of the fiber.

Still, the big problem was that the light signal had to be amplified electronically, meaning it had to be translated into an electronic signal, amplified, and then translated back into an optical signal and sent on its way. You can imagine how much this slowed things down and made it more expensive. So it was a real breakthrough in the early nineties when researchers invented ways of amplifying the pure light signal by doping a part of the fiber a with special compound, which when stimulated boosted the ongoing signal. It might have been impossible to keep up with bandwidth demand for the Internet we know today without that invention.

The next invention that is eagerly being worked on by hundreds of hopeful companies is optical switching. Sending a signal down a fiber from point A to point B is one thing. Splitting it up and sending it to different addresses is a whole other kettle of fish. This is a very difficult problem, but one with astronomical potential rewards, scientifically, socially, and economically. For this reason, it is being attacked with vigor. This and other things all but assure that the speed and capacity of the Internet will keep increasing exponentially for the foreseeable future.

What to do with all that bandwidth? Well for one thing, we are still having silly delays on the Internet all the time, even with "high-speed" connections, and even when accessing perfectly normal web pages. Secondly, we don't have video on demand over the Net yet, do we? (I really want, when I read about a film, to be able to go to a site, pay a buck or a half, and download the video in DVD quality in a second.) And thirdly there are all kinds of future applications, like telepresence, holographic transmission, and true Virtual Reality, none of which are even remotely approachable by the fastest technologies we have around today.

Funny though, there are two popular scenarios: One is that bandwidth can't keep up with demand at all in the future, and that the Net will collapse under the pressure. The other is that bandwidth is growing so fast that most of it will soon be wasted and just sit there, unused! Oh, are we having problems, only we don't know which ones!

What I think personally is that it probably will continue like it has in recent years. Bandwidth is growing slightly faster than demand. And this of course happens to be just the ideal scene.

Of course I could say: "Now we just have to use it well." But I won't, because I don't think that's really a problem. While it is true that as you refine your taste, you can become underwhelmed by the quality of most things in the world and the Net, it is also true that we all have to start somewhere, and any advance is an advance. The fact of a communication is more important than what it is about.

Yours, Eolake Stobblehouse

* sem·a·phore (sm-fôr, -fr)
1. A visual signaling apparatus with flags, lights, or mechanically moving arms, as one used on a railroad.
2. A visual system for sending information by means of two flags that are held one in each hand, using an alphabetic code based on the position of the signaler's arms.

is a contributing editor to the Mac Observer, specializing in cultural matters, and comes to us by way of MacCreator. Comments invited.

The title of this column, "Fuzzy Logic", refers to an attempt to view the larger issues without getting lost in the details. Sort of "squinting" at things:) Of course it is also the term for an attempt in computing to get computers to look at the world like it is, in a spectrum of grays, instead of 1 and 0, or Black and White.

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