With all of the talk about fiber floating around the Internet, especially in relationship to Google’s gigabit broadband service, many might be wondering just why fiber optics are so important. That is certainly a fair enough question to ponder, and the truth is that fiber optics have many advantages to offer customers and network architects alike. Before covering these individual benefits, it might be worth taking a step back and looking at the fundamental differences between traditional metal wires and fiber optics.
Over Hundred and Fifty Years of Data Transmission Metal wires have been sending electrical signals almost as long as the United States has been an independent nation, and that is saying something. The wires of today are far more sophisticated than those of yesteryear, but they still work in the same way: electricity is applied to one end of the wires and it travels to the far end where it is received as a signal. Along the way, the signal strength degrades as the energy experiences a type of electrical friction called impedance. Impedance results in the signal decaying over distance and the wire becoming warmer, which can cause some problems that will be outlined later.
The Power of Light is the Future Fiber optics use specialized fibers that are capable of carrying transmissions made of pure light. Just like electrical wiring, a data transmission starts at one end of a fiber optic cable and transfers all the way to the end where it is received and decoded.
Benefit #1: Less Signal Degradation While light does degrade over distance, the fact that the sun’s light shines brightly upon us says one thing: light travels a LOT further than the constant EMP waves the sun emits because light degrades much slower than electricity does. In terms of a broadband service provider and their customers, this means that more residences and businesses can be served. Anyone who remembers the dawn of DSL will probably recall the limitations that were caused by the distances involved; if one did not live practically next door to a DSL network node, they were out of luck. Things got better over time, but fiber optics has this problem solved from day one.
Benefit #2: More Untapped Overhead Metal wires are already nearing their physical potential due to the heat caused by data transmissions. Too much load on any set of wires will result in those wires melting into a fine slag and becoming useless, and that is exactly what happens when too much is demanded of old wires. Fiber optics carry light, not electricity, and light has a negligible heat footprint in most cases. This is especially true of light created for fiber optic systems, which is far less potent than the UV light emitted by the sun.
Benefit #3: Easier Upgrades While DSL and cable service providers have been able to systematically increase the performance of their networks over time, the entire act has been expensive. Often, whole segments of wires need to be dug up ad replaced because of the heat problem. Fiber optics have the combination of substantially greater distance between network nodes and substations and more untapped overhead, which makes upgrades less of a hassle for network carriers. This in turn means less fees that have to be passed on to the consumers. A good case in point would be Verizon’s FiOS network, which has dramatically increased in terms of raw performance since its public debut in a manner that DSL and cable services have not.
Benefit #4: Fiber is Green Starting to think that sending data via electricity over metal wires is wasteful? If so, then you would be correct; data sent over metal wires takes dozens of times the energy that it takes to send a light signal. The additional substations and nodes needed to keep that signal strong over greater distances only adds to the woes of metal wires, and makes fiber optics look that much better by comparison. Furthermore, upgrades to networks are a lot less wasteful on the fiber optic side of the fence. What do telecoms and cable providers do with all of those ‘old’ network nodes when they upgrade? Who knows, but fiber optics have fewer substations and nodes to replace and upgrade. Add to this the fact that the cables virtually never go bad, and it is simple to see why fiber optics are considered a green alternative to metal wires and electricity in any form.
Benefit #5: Psst…a Secret Big DSL and Cable service providers already know how useful fiber optics are, and chances are good that their networks use fiber optics to get much closer to the homes and businesses of their consumers than they would like to let everyone know. In many cases, the fiber optic networks of DSL and/or cable providers actually goes within a mile or so of many of the customers they serve. Why? Because they know that fiber optics are the most cost effective solution, and they know that by putting fiber close to the homes and businesses that they serve that they stand a very good chance of making the transition to an all-fiber network that much easier.