Like many bandwidth-starved American nerds, I’ve been following the rollout of high-speed fiber-optic networks across the United States relatively closely. These networks are generally designed to be scalable long into the future, offering increased bandwidth as optics technology improves and demand rises. However, the data shows that the demand for faster networks in the United States already exists. And while this county has the world’s largest economy, it seems as though we truly are behind the curve if the Google-powered fiber-optic broadband network launched in Kansas City, Missouri has turned so many heads.
Technology in this area is advancing swiftly. Wavelength-division multiplexing, for example, allows engineers to cram as much as 160 times more data through a fiber pair than standard transceivers allow. This takes a 10 Gbps link to 1.6 Tbps, a truly jaw-dropping figure. Additional advances in the light sources used to transmit data through fiber optics may make it possible to increase that bandwidth 10 times further over the same fiber. That’s a 16 Tbps link where there was once a measly 10 Gbps link, a 1600-fold increase in data transmission. Given a generous estimate of 10 Mbps for the average American broadband connection, that would be enough bandwidth for 1.6 million homes.
All of that is well and good, but deployment of such technology to the home lags far behind demand. So what are the options? Advancements in wireless technology have improved reliability and bandwidth availability as well. Researchers showed throughput increases of 700 percent in a crowded environment with a new technology named “WiFox”. Additional work on the propagation of signals via a vortex has allowed researchers to make a 2.5 Tbps link over one meter. More improvements to that technique will certainly follow.
And then there are the researchers that are working on transmitting information from one point in space to another, without relying on any propagation medium whatsoever. Some very smart people at the University of Science and Technology of China transmitted information 150 meters from one clump of rubidium atoms to another. They’re a long way from selling a box in Staples that does this trick, but it’s an amazing leap no less.
So it sounds like our options aren’t great. Most of the technology I just listed is still on a lab bench. For the time being, we’re in the middle of a great big game of catch-up with our Southeast-Asian co-nerds. South Korea consistently ranks the highest in the world on average broadband speed, something that only small areas like Kansas City can compete with. But at least the Google Fiber rollout has become real. We’re that much closer to getting the service promised to us for the last two decades, and that’s something to be happy about.