May 29, 2013, 6:00 AM —
Let's talk about Internet bandwidth today. Regular readers are probably tired of my constant griping over the fact that I had to give up my beloved FiOS and switch to Time Warner Cable when I moved out of the Boston area last summer. Since then, Google Fiber has hit the news and I find myself feeling very envious of the folks who live in the cities that have access to a 1 Gigabit Internet connection, no matter who the provider.
Now it seems when it comes to lusting for speed, I'm setting my sights too low. A measly gigabit? Pshaw! Now I want 400 gigabits! That's the speed that Bell Labs has hit by using technology similar to that used in noise canceling headphones.
Technically its called "phase conjugation" and what Bell's researchers have done is devise a way to send two streams of data through a single fiber optic pipe. You see, the problem (at least this is my layperson's understanding) is that as they ramp up the distance and speed of a fiber connection, they have to apply more power, and as you apply more power the signal starts to get 'noisy' with spikes and dips in the data. But if they send two streams and then superimpose them at the end, they can filter out the noise by comparing the streams to each other.
This is (clearly) not a detailed scientific explanation; for that I'll refer you to the original research paper, or for those not willing to shell out the cost of the paper, there's a BBC News article with more details and written by someone a lot smarter than me when it comes to this stuff.
The breakthrough here isn't actually the speed (according to GigaOm Verizon has managed to hit 21.7 terabits of bandwith!) but the distance. The Bell Labs folk were able to pipe this 400 gigabit signal over 7,954 miles of fiber. That's enough for an trans-oceanic line, and certainly far enough to provide trunk lines across the country.
So what does this all mean for you and me? Probably not much in the short term, but as gigabit fiber to individual homes (hopefully) becomes more and more common, it stands to reason that the Internet backbone is going to need to be beefed up to support all that traffic. In theory using phase conjugation means they could add capacity without laying down more fiber, right?
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