Light is a versatile, powerful energy. At different frequencies light produces x-rays, microwaves, radio waves and infrared signals. Light can be bent, reflected, scattered and absorbed, but for the communications industry, the ability to transmit light using pure glass fiber optic cables has transformed the way information is sent all over the globe.
Although optical communication was first demonstrated in the 1790s with Claude Chappe’s optical telegraph, and an artistic light-transmitting principle was used in the 1840s, the explosion of fiber optics during the last 20 years has created a network of information transmission at ever increasing speeds.
Compared to copper wire commonly used for Internet, television or phone connections, fiber optic cables are cheaper, thinner, lightweight, more flexible and offer a clearer signal. They are also more secure for transmitting information and use less power than copper. Fiber optic cables, which are no thicker than a human hair, carry more bits of information much faster than copper wire ever could. And according to Phillip Windley, this is just the beginning.
Windley, a computer science professor at BYU, served as the chief information officer for the State of Utah under Governor Mike Leavitt. He says as computers process information at faster speeds (usually doubling every 18 months), and routers are designed to adapt to the higher velocity, fiber optics will create a global network with information instantly available.
“I’m sure there are theoretical limits to fiber optics,” Windley says. “But it’s going to be the backbone of how we build networks for years to come. There’s nothing being created now to replace fiber. The capacity of a single fiber strand versus a single copper wire is phenomenal.”
But it really isn’t a battle between fiber optic and copper cables. Both mediums provide important structure to the communications market. With so many copper cables already in place, it has been easy for Internet providers to offer DSL Internet service to residents. Many homes have copper cables carrying between 500,000 and 8 million bits of information per second. However, using current technology, fiber optic cables can carry much more than 1 billion bps.
So what does that mean for the average consumer? Faster downloads, quicker uploading, instant information.
With an ordinary DSL connection, users can download an Mp3 song in about 31 seconds. Contrast that speed with a connection using 10Mbps and users can get the same song in .31 seconds. Even faster, a connection of 100Mbps will deliver the song to your computer in .03 seconds. Incredibly, as residential routers and computer systems are developed to handle 1 Gbps, downloads will happen even faster.
Replacing copper systems with a fiber optic network takes time and money. But in order to bring fiber optic technology to individual homes and business, 14 Utah cities banded together to create the Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency (UTOPIA). UTOPIA designed the UTOPIA Community MetroNet so residents in areas like Tremonton, Murray, Cedar City and many places in between can access the latest communication technology at the highest speeds.
The cities provided financing to create the network; private servers pay a fee to the cities to use the system and customers sign up with a participating provider to receive Internet, television and phone services at some of the highest speeds available to residents anywhere in the country.
“With the fiber that UTOPIA is putting in the ground, we’re not going to hit the end of it for a long time,” Windley says. “There’s lots of room left in it. We won’t need to change the fiber, just the processing power at each end.”
Up to Speed
Mstar, a Utah-based service provider specializing in ultra-high-speed com-munication services, recently announced the fastest residential connection product in the United States. The new 50Mbps is available to homes and businesses in the UTOPIA network. Already an industry leader offering 15Mbps, Mstar’s new ultra-fast speed is at least four times faster than an average cable connection.
Combining wireless technology with fiber optics will create options for the average consumer that seem straight out of a science fiction movie. Although not available now, these concepts are quickly on their way to becoming reality. Using the 50Mbps connection, Mstar has set the stage for residents to use their phone, TV and Internet for a completely converged experience.
“If they’re watching a sports program on TV, they’ll be able to use a remote control to change cameras to view different angles,” says Matt Clayton, Mstar’s director of marketing. “If they’re watching a show and want to order a pizza, they can order straight from their TV.”
Clayton also predicts more telecommuting as employees start working from home because “There will be no office that will work faster or give a better Internet connection than the one at home.”
Eventually, schools with UTOPIA connections will be able to create specialized channels to broadcast sporting events, school plays, classroom presentations or any number of activities. With the proper infrastructure, schools could allow students to produce, film, edit and broadcast to family and friends in the UTOPIA network.
“It’s not just very feasible, it’s going to happen,” Clayton says. “Fiber is spreading quickly. Fiber is future proof.”
However, as ready for the future as fiber optics may be, it still isn’t disaster proof. High speed fiber connections connect North and South America to Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia using thousands of miles of fiber optic cables criss-crossing the oceans. This global network is not infallible. In December 2006, a powerful earthquake in Taiwan created one of the largest telecommunications blackouts in years. The quake damaged nearly a dozen fiber optic cables on the ocean floor, disrupting communications traffic throughout Asia and parts of Australia. Financial markets were affected when information from the United States and Europe couldn’t get through the damaged communications system.
But the benefits far outweigh the risks where fiber optics are concerned. New technology will create faster connections and providers like Mstar will continue to bring innovative ideas to the forefront of the communications industry.
“We’re still perfecting our model,” Clayton says. “Eventually we’ll grow and expand outside the United States. We’re ready to rock and roll.”