Fibre-optic technology’s latest stride could boost capacity by up to 100%

Engineers have set new power and distance records for fibre-optic communication

Optical fibre: researchers at San Diego received data after it voyaged 12,000km through cables with standard amplifiers and no electronic regenerators.

Optical fibre: researchers at San Diego received data after it voyaged 12,000km through cables with standard amplifiers and no electronic regenerators.

 

Over two billion kilometres of optical fibres have been installed worldwide, a string of glass that could be wrapped around the globe 50,000 times.

It is estimated that over 100 million people now have direct fibre-optic connections into their homes, not to mention all those cell towers picking up radio frequency photons from the billions of people with mobile phones.

It seems the only thing that can outpace technology is our appetite for it.

And no sooner than some new-fangled tool becomes ubiquitous, everyone immediately starts criticising its limitations.

That’s not necessarily wrong. The pursuit of perfection is what drives innovation. But the web is an untethered force striving to connect more people on an infrastructure that lacks regulation and isn’t fit for purpose.

New hope?

California

The engineers in California have set new power and distance records for fibre-optic communications that can still be deciphered by the receiver. The technology offers 50-100 per cent capacity increases.

They have managed to increase the maximum power at which optical signals can be sent through existing optical fibres. Should the technology be rolled out, it could improve data transmission rates significantly for the fibre-optic cables that underpin the internet, cable, wireless and landline networks. The research was published in a June issue of the journal Science.

“A basic optical communication link operates by sending multiple wavelengths or frequency down a single optical fibre. As you increase transmission power, you start to introduce distortion between those wavelength channels. In other words, they interfere with each other.”

You also need a lot of power to send messages over longer distances. Over the long haul, you would need to amplify the signal every 100km. Not only that, but beyond a threshold power level, additional power increases damage the information travelling in the fibre-optic cable.

According to the study’s authors, the new approach would take away the need for electronic regenerators placed along the fibre link.

“Our approach removes this power limit, which in turn extends how far signals can travel in optical fibre without needing a repeater,” said Nikola Alic, a research scientist from the Qualcomm Institute, and co-author of the research.

The researchers at UC San Diego successfully received information after it had voyaged an unprecedented 12,000km through fibre-optic cables with standard amplifiers and no electronic regenerators.

“You can choose to send more info over the same distance, or send the same data rate over longer distances,” says Prof Liam Barry from the Dublin City University school of electronic engineering. “This is big news for basic optical-fibre links, like the ones spanning the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It could lead to greater capacity between Europe, the US and elsewhere without having to install new fibre. From a residential perspective, you’re not going to see a big change though, as each house is limited by its own network connections.”

So season three of Orange is the New Black won’t necessarily load any faster but this is still a step forward in terms of increasing capacity on existing networks.

Innovation like this could assist in many industry’s aims to accommodate more services under the internet of things umbrella. “Everybody’s talking about it, but so far the internet of things has been restricted by capacity,” says Barry O’Connor, commercialisation development manager for the Adapt Centre for Digital Research. “The next version of every car, bus or house we build will need to have data-gathering capabilities but that will only happen if we increase and improve transmission capability, making more information travel faster.”

More is more

This growth is happening against the backdrop of several major US internet service providers (ISPs) – including AT&T, Time Warner and Verizon – being accused of “slowing data from popular websites to thousands of US businesses and residential customers in dozens of cities across the country”. A study conducted by internet activists BattlefortheNet suggests ISPs are not giving content to users at the speeds they’re being charged for.

A big mess

Andrew B Whinston

“Demand is not necessarily exceeding supply. It’s about managing ongoing capacity. The internet is subject to many surges in demand.

“Whenever there’s a crisis in the world, everybody logs on and we experience capacity faults. Improved fibre-optic channels won’t change that.”

According to an article by electrical engineer Peter J Winzer from Bell Labs in New Jersey, the kind of disruption to existing channels required to feed the current digital appetite is still some time away. Major operators are not going to cough up for any new hardware upgrades any time soon, unless they can reap enormous advantage, the kind which motivated the decision to replace coaxial cables back in the 1980s. Back then, fibre cables were able to support 100 times more traffic than coaxial cables, “with the potential to scale capacity by another five orders of magnitude”, says Winzer.

“In today’s terms, to yield a similar disruption, a new waveguide would have to support speeds of several petabits (thousands of terabits) per second without amplification over a 1,000km span, with the ability to scale to support several hundred exabits (thousands of petabits) per second. For now, at least, such waveguides clearly belong to the realm of fiction.”

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