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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Communication at 186,000 Miles Per Second: Woven Fibers Changing Lives

Is Fiber Optic Communication Worth It?

How do we justify massive government and private investment in technology?

Years ago people criticized the French and Japanese for their massive investment in fast trains. Today the citizens of those countries could not live and properly do business without those "bullet trains."

There was plenty of criticism of the United States government when they proposed building the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s. That road network may be rapidly failing today but the benefits remain obvious to most people at this point.

Do I feel the U.S. should have continued to invest in train systems? Private business entities including Union Pacific, Burlington Northern, and Norfolk Southern still do exactly that, profitably.

Japan is about to complete installation of fiber optic cable to nearly every business, government office, school, hospital, and home. Light is available to carry information to millions every second of every day. At an astronomical cost, the Japanese government has heavily subsidized this light-speed communication system. Now people are starting to question the benefits in light of such high costs.
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Why Improve Communication?

A nation that provides many pathways for young minds to grow and seek knowledge is sure to succeed. Those nations make sure that all children living within their borders receive health care. Responsible nations maintain their school buildings and properly compensate their educators. Education through college should be accessible to all citizens, as they require it, where they can reach it.

Advanced nations are just starting to recognize the need to build fast communication systems. Citizens in some places can communicate with each other at the speed of light. Beyond copper-wired telephone lines lies a system of communicating that reduces the disruption of the communication tool to nearly zero. There seems to be a never ending issue surrounding the capacity of our current communication systems.

People want to send and receive video.

High-resolution teleconferencing looks poised to spread quickly through new business, government, education, and medical applications.

Sports programming is paid for and demanded in real-time, no delays whatsoever.

Movie producers want to transmit movies to theaters and directly into homes.

Actors, musicians and other entertainers want more people to see their shows, hear their tunes and, yes, pay for the privilege of doing so.

Television image quality improves dramatically over fiber. Fiber can carry a significant selection of audio and video channels. Capacity also keeps increasing as scientists learn to bounce more data though each fiber glass strand.

Traffic cameras use fiber to make jams visible faster within a metropolitan network, Security and police surveillance camera networks, like 'em or not, are more responsive over fiber.

Education and training benefit from glass wire. Real-time distance training in a rich virtual classroom environment can benefit both the geographically challenged as well as the physically challenged members of our society. That kind of video rich content needs a fiber connection to really work.

Internet telephone calls must be sharp and without pauses. Calls to emergency numbers like 911 must get through to the correct call center, instantly. Phone systems should not be designed to fail during major emergency situations.

An X-Ray image stored in a hospital office must be visible in great detail in a doctor's office, instantly. Surgeons must be able to hold a discussion or conference call with a primary physician or specialist shortly thereafter and be able to point to parts of that X-Ray during the video discussion. This conference could be held at a time when seconds mean life or death.

New product designers need to send and receive designs faster. Factories need to receive updated product designs faster. Product safety issues need to be resolved faster.

Scientists need better images at shorter intervals for myriad reasons.

New mothers, and fathers, must see baby on-screen at the day care center. This may seem like a scene out of Brave New World but it is reality, like it or not. Maternity benefits are only sufficient in a handful of European nations and Singapore. Ironically, these nations typically have already built fiber optic networks.

Soldiers may kill fewer innocents if they had instantaneous access to real-time imagery of the situations they are about to face. One less grieving family, one less devastated soldier, one less mad bomber blowing up in the marketplace, all for a clear, sharp image of what is actually going on out there. This is more about the use of fiber optic cable among intelligence sources. Sometimes every second is important when the person that approves an attack is 15,000 kilometers away. More importantly, rich content could make a difference even though the final leg to the soldier is likely to be wireless.

Protesters living under evil right-wing regimes and juntas need to send images of military and police repression to the "free world" faster. Imagine if there was a channel that carried live remote camera footage of the Darfur region of Sudan or parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo every morning. Fiber is not necessary but rich digital content could be, no it would definitely be very convincing evidence of the atrocities taking place. When the junta in Myanmar shut off the Internet in that country, it taught the world a multi-faceted lesson people are not likely to forget.

Why Not Just Go Wireless?

Wireless services still require a super fast backbone system of communication. Speed and necessary bandwidth issues will remain an obstacle to certain wireless systems. If there was not so much duplication and waste through competition, wireless would succeed in some respects. There is the promise of widespread WiFi Max and G4 phone systems, someday. Nevertheless, the total capacity of fiber optic communication will always exceed wireless channels by colossal margins. It is all about sending information at 186,000 miles a second with very little interference or attenuation. Think about that speed and sharpness.

What About Satellite Communication?

Satellite communication is an important part of the world's communication system but it is not yet ready to provide an instantaneous, high-bandwidth solution for a multitude of new applications. There are too many miles between the nearest satellite and the surface of the earth. One hundred miles of atmosphere creates an unacceptable delay among other stormy disruptions. Still, this author sits here listening to satellite radio programming and using GPS signals nearly every day. Satellite technology will undoubtedly bridge many communication gaps but it has so far failed in respect to upload bandwidth.

Who Is Building Fiber Optic Networks?

In the United States, a firm called Corning Inc.(GLW) invented and manufactures much of the fiber optic core. Many others buy Corning's glass and incorporate it into other products and services. In the U.S., Verizon Inc. (VZ) and AT&T (T) pay the most money to install new fiber optics. AT&T actually buys wireless services from Level 3 Communications (LVLT). Verizon markets their own fiber optic network, FiOS, as an alternative to cable television. Cisco Systems Inc. (CSCO) certainly makes money supporting fiber connections. Other, smaller, firms benefiting from fiber optic investment include ADC Telecommunications Inc. (ADCT), CommScope Inc. (CTV), General Cable Corporation (BGC), and Optical Cable Corporation (OCCF), but there are many others.

What about Dark Fiber?

Dark Fiber or unlit fiber optic glass line is not really the issue it was years ago. Developments continue in the science of using glass to transmit data. Corning, MIT, and NIST (The U.S. National Institute of Standards) seem to be leading the pack of switch designers and connector manufacturers. As fast as Verizon, AT&T, and Level 3 partners sell space in dark fiber, scientists learn to move more data through each strand. Butter's Law of Photonics applies here, the amount of data able to pass through glass fiber doubles every nine months. Therefore, the cost of data transmission drops by half every nine months.

A recent earthquake in the Pacific severed a major undersea communications cable. Fiber optic cables allowed almost instantaneous shifting of that huge data stream to a different network. Spare fiber optic cable capacity can also be seen as redundancy that further supports fiber optic claims of superior reliability. Optical Cable Corp., mentioned above, is one of several fiber optic vendors to military customers. Some cell phone towers and service providers can always be expected to fail in unusual circumstances. Spare capacity in fiber optic networks may be the only available space for data to flow during major emergencies.

The Future

Fiber optic communication appears to be the only answer to huge communication issues, not the least being ever-increasing demand for bandwidth. New applications that make use of optical network capacity appear every year. Fiber optic solutions are being installed every day in every city across the nation. One inventor I know is working on an emergency system to allow police and fire departments to automatically unlock all WiFi routers and connect that network to every cell phone network, using fiber optic networks, of course. The resulting nearly seamless network could be immediately used by First Responders anywhere in the United States. Of course each user would need to be carrying a device with capabilities similar to the iPhone. Spooky project but not without some advantages.

How are you going to use your new fiber optic connection tomorrow?

Link: New York Times article

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Why do you hate America?"

This is a remarkably easy question to provoke. One might, for instance, expose elements of this nation's brutal foreign policy. Ask a single probing question about, say, U.S. complicity in the overthrow of governments in Guatemala, Iran, or Chile and thin-skinned patriots (sic) will come out of the woodwork to defend their country's honor by accusing you of being "anti-American." Of course, this allegation might lead me to ponder how totalitarian a culture this must be to even entertain such a concept, but I'd rather employ the vaunted Arundhati defense. The incomparable Ms. Roy says: "What does the term 'anti-American' mean? Does it mean you are anti-jazz or that you're opposed to freedom of speech? That you don't delight in Toni Morrison or John Updike? That you have a quarrel with giant sequoias?" (I'm a tree hugger remember? I don't argue with sequoias.)

When pressed, I sometimes reply: "I don't hate America. In fact, think it's one of the best countries anyone ever stole." But, after the laughter dies down, I have a confession to make: If by "America" they mean the elected/appointed officials and the corporations that own them, well, I guess I do hate that America-with justification.

Among many reasons, I hate America for the near-extermination and subsequent oppression of its indigenous population. I hate it for its role in the African slave trade and for dropping atomic bombs on civilians. I hate its control of institutions like the United Nations, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and World Trade Organization. I hate it for propping up brutal dictators like Suharto, Pinochet, Duvalier, Hussein, Marcos, and the Shah of Iran. I hate America for its unconditional support for Israel. I hate its bogus two-party system, its one-size-fits-all culture, and its income gap. I could go on for pages but I'll sum up with this: I hate America for being a hypocritical white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

After a paragraph like that, you know what comes next: If you hate America so much, why don't you leave? Leave America? That would potentially put me on the other end of U.S. foreign policy. No thanks.

I like how Paul Robeson answered that question before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956: "My father was a slave and my people died to build this country, and I'm going to stay right here and have a part of it, just like you. And no fascist-minded people like you will drive me from it. Is that clear?"

Since none of my people died to build anything, I rely instead on William Blum, who declares, "I'm committed to fighting U.S. foreign policy, the greatest threat to peace and happiness in the world, and being in the United States is the best place for carrying out the battle. This is the belly of the beast, and I try to be an ulcer inside of it."

Needless to say, none of the above does a damn thing to placate the yellow ribbon crowd. It seems what offends flag-wavers most is when someone like me makes use of the freedom they claim to adore. According to their twisted logic, I am ungrateful for my liberty if I have the audacity to exercise it. If I make the choice to not salute the flag during the seventh inning stretch at Yankee Stadium, somehow I'm not worthy of having the freedom to make the choice to not salute the flag during the seventh inning stretch at Yankee Stadium. These so-called patriots not only claim to celebrate freedom while refusing my right to exploit it, they also ignore the social movements that fought for and won such freedoms.

There's plenty of tolerated public outcry against the Bush administration and the occupation of Iraq, but it's neither fashionable nor acceptable to go as far as saying, no, I do not support the troops and yes, I hate what America does. Fear of recrimination allows the status quo to control the terms of debate. Until we voice what is in our hearts and have the nerve to admit what we hate ... we will never create something that can be loved.