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Until Steve Jobs brought his vision of the iPhone to life, people thought there had been nothing new in telecom since 1876 – when Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone.
Scientists are always striving to find new and faster forms of communication, from the telegraph to the radio. And now, people can connect across continents and even oceans in a matter of seconds. So many packets are being sent back and forth across networks that once again, we face the age old challenge: how we can move data faster?
This question pops up repeatedly, because as time passes, the rate of data consumption increases. In fact, according to the PEW Internet research study conducted in January 2014, 87% of American adults use the Internet, up from 14% in 1995. Users are consuming information at higher rates, and the need for speed isn’t just about satisfying impatient consumers and employees; it’s about efficiency.
Currently, fiber optics is the medium of choice for data transmission. But will there ever be something faster? Nothing is faster than the speed of light. But what exactly is fiber optics, and how is it different from what you are probably using right now?
In a nutshell, fiber optic communication involves sending pulses of light through strands of glass or plastic. This is similar to the way boats communicate, by flashing signal lamps on and off in Morse code. A watchman on another boat sees the lamp and interprets the message. Using the same concept, a photoelectric cell at the end of the fiber strand turns light pulses into electrical information that a computer understands.
As opposed to copper wires (which utilize electric signals), optic fibers are not susceptible to the wide variety of interference associated with metals. This allows fiber to transmit information faster and with minimal signal loss. Now, you are probably saying to yourself, “This is wonderful! How can I make the switch to fiber?” Congratulations! You have been using fiber all along – you just didn’t know it.
While you may be using copper to connect from your modem to your Internet service provider, data is transmitted across major network access points using fiber optics. Think of it like our highway system: you use a road with a lower speed limit to get from your house to the highway, but once you are on the highway, you can reach much higher speeds because of the way highways are designed and built. In-house fiber subscribers bring highway speeds directly to their home, bypassing the last mile of copper and roads.
Nonetheless, not all fiber cables are created equal; engineers continue to improve fiber design similar to the way lane widening is done on a highway. In fact, just last year, Dutch and American scientists were able to produce a cable similar in size to a current transatlantic cable, but with seven distinct cores instead of one. To put that into perspective, it would allow you transmit a 10GB movie in 0.3 milliseconds. Using a home cable setup of 50Mbps, that same 10GB movie would take over 25 minutes to transmit.
Fast enough for you? No? While fiber is the pinnacle of current telecommunications technology, quantum communications is making headway in a few select laboratories. This technology is still in the early stages of research, but scientists were recently able to “teleport” photons across a very large distance without any medium between the initial and end staging points. The science behind this phenomena is unknown. Einstein himself called it, “spooky action at a distance.”
So how fast is teleportation? Recent experiments indicate that quantum networks can travel 10,000 times faster than the speed of light. Imagine the impact speeds like this will have on business.