March 26, 2001, 1:25 PM — Every child of the '70s remembers the first mainstream application of fiber optics: Color-changing lamps that were as cheap as they were mesmerizing. Nowadays fiber has to handle more serious but just as fascinating jobs.
Laparoscopic surgical instruments have transformed innumerable invasive procedures into outpatient surgery. Fiber cable bundles move telephone and TV signals through narrow ditches, helping rid streets of weather-sensitive poles and suspended wires. Major telephone companies' nationwide fiber networks supported the competition that sent long-distance rates into free fall. In corporations, fiber is the technology of choice for SANs (storage area networks) and for bridging distances between buildings and between floors.
In every sense, fiber optics is a remarkable technology. One day it will replace copper cable. Fiber advocates, including Senior Analyst P.J. Connolly, can't understand why all companies aren't already reworking their infrastructure to bring fiber to every desk. On the flip side, copper supporters, such as East Coast Technical Director Tom Yager, think those dollars and that effort would be better invested in solving other network problems.
Tom: I admit to being one of those kids who thought those chintzy fiber optic lamps were cool. And I'm no fiber Luddite now. For long hauls, for hazardous environments (such as where volatile gases might be ignited by sparks), and for massive storage networks, fiber is indispensable. In these cases and a few others, the electrical signals that travel over copper cable are a liability.
However, fiber's success in interbuilding hauls and SANs does not justify the pressure that's being applied to get companies to rip out their Category 5 network infrastructure and replace it with fiber.
Copper survived the transition from 100M bps to 1,000M bps, something a lot of fiber hounds said it couldn't do. Now I'm hearing that gigabit is the absolute ceiling for Category 5, and that any company that doesn't want its network to fall behind bandwidth demands had better start fishing fiber through the walls now.
I don't buy it, and I certainly don't advocate spending money on a fiber-to-the-desk refit when more and more of the people who occupy those desks are getting pink slips. It doesn't make economic sense.
P.J.: I prefer Lava Lamps myself, but I'll suggest other reasons for choosing fiber over copper.
For one, I'm surprised that I have to mention lightning to a Texan. Also, although it sounds like something from James Bond, copper networks are a source of radio frequency emissions. If someone is motivated enough, they can capture your traffic without ever touching your physical infrastructure.