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Questions over fibre network future

October 18th, 2010

Research by a leading scientist raises questions as to whether fibre optic technology is capable of being the universal solution for high-speed broadband that many people think.

The future expansion of global broadband communications has been thought to have been guaranteed by fibre optics, and indeed most developed countries have been investing in a fibre infrastructure over the last 20 years. However new research into laser satellite internet and doubts over the future capacity of fibre optics mean we need to keep an open mind.

A new report and recent results from laboratory tests of existing fibre technology show maximum data rates being half what the communications industry was originally led to believe. The report confirms that our appetite for web based working and data transit will be stretching the capacity of the fibre optic network much sooner than previously imagined.

And there is a growing realisation within the telecommunications industry that the end of the phenomenal growth in optical fibre communication capacity is within sight. At this year’s Fibre Optics Conference (OFC 2010) several groups reported that they were extremely close to reaching the maximum capacity of the existing fibre technology.

Dr David Richardson from the University of Southampton’s Optoelectronics Research Centre says in his report that the best data rates measured in laboratory settings challenge the perceived notion that fibre is a limitless conduit for data.

Dr Richardson said

“The thought that the current fibre technology has infinite capacity is not true – we are beginning to hit the fundamental limits of the current technology.

“We need to be looking at the next big breakthrough to allow us to continue to scale as we have traditionally done.”

“If you gain a factor of two in bandwidth by developing a whole new amplifier technology, that’s perhaps two or three years of capacity growth. To get radical changes – to get factors of 100 or 1000 – it’s going to be extremely demanding.”

Dr Richardson also pointed out that the current mentality of the public that broadband should be an unlimited and almost free resource will need to change.

He said

“We may all increasingly need to get used to the idea that bandwidth – just like water and energy – is a valuable commodity to be used wisely.”

The telecommunications industry is gradually moving towards a business model where users are charged for what they consume in terms of bandwidth and data, much like they have been in the past for other universal utilities.

The UK is slowly climbing up the broadband world rankings, but is still not “ready for tomorrow,” according to a global study of internet services. The annual report completed at Oxford University’s ‘Said Business School’ and commissioned by network giant Cisco, looks at how well countries are doing in terms of both quality and penetration of net services.

The UK is now ranked 18th out of 72 countries, up from 25th place in 2009.

The perception that fibre is the only answer to our broadband future is also being challenged by the satellite internet industry as the sector develops technology to move signals by light. Research into the use of lasers to pass signals and data between satellites and the ground show that the next generation of satellite broadband technology will not only be blisteringly fast and have virtually no latency, but will also compete favourably with fibre optics in terms of cost, flexibility and capacity. Antenna sizes for laser satellite communications are much smaller than today’s microwave based dishes.

The UK military have been experimenting and developing laser satellite communications for some years.

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