Technology
07.10.16

Fibre Optic Technologies for the Next 50 Years

The author of this photo is by LEO PENG. From Flickr.com

It might be hard to imagine, but we were already talking about fibre-to-the-home (FttH) networks back in the 1970s and 1980s. This was in the early days of interactive TV, and pay TV and fibre optics were already seen as the next level of telecoms infrastructure needed for such services. The first residential fibre pilot networks were built in Berlin and Nagasaki. One of the most ambitious projects was in Columbus, Ohio, but in the end they decided to continue with their HFC network (hybrid fibre-coaxial networks combine optical fibre with coaxial cable).

What this shows is that, while the timing was wrong, the FttH vision of that time was a valid one. And the implementation of that vision is finally happening.

It is important to realise that we are talking about infrastructure and not the services that are being carried over it; 40 years ago, it was also video-based entertainment that was driving the vision of FttH. However, it required Netflix and its streaming brothers and sisters to push this over the line.

So now, 40 years on, it might be worthwhile to start looking at what will be in store for us in another 40 years’ time. And, no, there is nothing revolutionary on the horizon in relation to fixed telecoms infrastructure – nothing similar to, for example, the total replacement of copper and HFC by fibre networks. Wireless will see more developments, but natural science predicts that there will always be a capacity problem in relation to the spectrum, and it is therefore not suitable for mass-market, high-quality video. Over time, this will certainly have moved further towards 4K and 8K, which are new digital television and digital cinematography  technologies with resolutions of 4,000 and 8,000 pixels. These very high resolutions require large broadband transmission capacities that can only be delivered to large consumer markets through fibre optic networks.

All predictions indicate that it will be further improvements in fibre technology rather than something totally new which will drive change here. It will be driven by developments in new types of fibre that are more cost-effective, as we can already see with fibre optic networks that were installed 20 years ago. It is no longer economical to maintain these networks. Several submarine cables are having to deal with this. Here we have seen that 2.5Gbit/s networks more than 20 years old can now be upgraded to 40Gbit/s and even 100+Gbit/s networks.

Looking to the future, one of these new fibre technologies is known as photonic-crystal fibre. It is a new form of optical fibre dependent on the properties of photonic crystals, whose light confinement characteristics are not feasible in regular optical fibre. It is now used in highly sensitive gas sensors, high-power transmission, fibre lasers, fibre-optic communications, non-linear devices and elsewhere. There are categories such as photonic-bandgap fibre, which confines light by means of band gap effects; holey fibre, which has air holes in its cross-sections; hole-assisted fibre, where light is subject to a conventional higher-index core transmuted by the presence of air holes; and Bragg fibre, which is photonic-bandgap fibre formed by concentric rings of multi-layer film. Photonic crystal fibres can be thought of as a subgroup of micro-structured optical fibres, where light is guided by structural modifications and not merely by refractive index differences.

Current estimates are that with these new technologies, fibre optic cable will remain viable for at least the next 50 years. This brings us to a timeframe equal to the one from when we first started to talk about a commercial FttH vision. Obviously, it is hard to make predictions about things that we have not yet envisaged, even in science fiction scenarios. The next level could quite possibly be based on neurological-based communication based on our brainwaves. Who knows?

Paul Budde

Global Seven News

www.budde.com.au

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