The Global Fiber Optic Nervous
System A worldwide network of fiber
optic cables offers ever increasing bandwidths to interconnect
The Earth is becoming one big brain. Electronic
brain, that is. Every CPU is a cell in that brain and every data
link is a nerve in the system. Gregory Stock described this phenomena
in his book "Metaman" over a decade ago. If anything,
the growing tentacles of long haul fiber optic cables are enabling
this brain to grow bigger and faster every day.
In The News
Undersea fiber optic cables, also called submarine communications
cables, are in the news lately. An earthquake off the coast of
southern Taiwan damaged 8 undersea cables late in December of
2006. Some cables were severed in multiple places. This immediately
slowed the data rates to Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong
and mainland China, although other paths have kept some communications
intact. How do you fix these cables? You have to grab them off
the sea floor with grappling hooks and then splice them back
together. It's a low tech approach to fixing a high tech system,
but it works.
What Makes a Fiber Optic Cable?
Fiber optic cable is, in principle, just a long string of glass.
I suppose that's like saying microprocessor chips are also just
highly processed sand. Optical fibers are very, very pure glass
that is treated to create a very thin core surrounded by a cladding
that has a different index of refraction. The combination of
core and cladding traps laser light that is sent in one end of
the fiber and guides it through up to 100 Km of cable to emerge
at the other end with as little attenuation as possible. To create
a transoceanic cable, solid state optical amplifiers called Erbium-doped
amplifiers are inserted into the cable at intervals to boost
the light signal.
The Capacity and Value of Undersea Cable
Undersea fiberoptic cables have tremendous data carrying capacities
even though they measure only about an inch in diameter. Some
of the older cables may have bandwidths in the range of 200 to
600 Gbps. A new one in the works between the USA and China will
have a capacity of 1.28 Tbps initially with expansion to 5.12
Tbps. That's Terabits per second, 1,000 Gbps per Tbps. How are
these capacities practical? Individual fiber strands are so small
that a cable may contain many strands. Each strand can transport
multiple wavelengths of light using Wavelength Division Multiplexing.
Each wavelength is a bit like having another independent fiber
strand. The multiple wavelengths don't see each other as they
co-exist in the fiber.
From One Wire to a Web of Fiber
Undersea communications cables have been linking continents for
about 150 years. The first one was laid by Cyrus Field in three
attempts between 1858 and 1866 to establish a telegraph link
between North America and Europe. Between that first transatlantic
copper cable that was heralded as another wonder of the world
and 1900, eight more were installed. Today there are about 1,000
undersea cables linking all the continents but Antarctica, with
more in the works all the time. There are so many, that perfectly
usable older cables have been decommissioned because their data
rates are just too slow.
Fiber Optic Lines Versus Satellite
There really is no substitute for this fiber optic nervous system.
Data transfer rates have become so great that satellite communication
can't handle it. Landlines, or should I say land and sea lines,
have the additional advantage of lower latencies. A fiber optic
path half-way around the world makes a signal travel only 24,902
miles for a round trip. That same trip via geosynchronous satellite
is over 4x that. The difference is more significant between closer
points on the Earth. A 1,000 mile link using a point to point
fiber optic link is still 46,000 or so miles up and down to the
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