Fiber-Optic Communications

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Archived Viewpoints

1998

1996

About This Technology

May 2003

Since the first deployments of fiber-optic–communication systems in the 1980s, FOC technology has made the world a smaller place. No other technology can match the incredible efficiency with which fiber-optic networks transport traffic. FOC technology has enabled telecommunications carriers to slash telephony charges, particularly for long-distance and international calls, but an even bigger effect than lower-cost voice telecommunications services is the newfound financial viability of transporting huge amounts of data. In addition to enabling high-performance private networks, fiber-optic networks form the backbone of the Internet and most cable-TV networks. Thus, data communications is changing both the way that people work—better telecommunications increases productivity—and the type of entertainment they enjoy in their leisure time—they have access to both free and premium content.

The first commercial fiber-optic networks appeared more than two decades ago, but network technologies are developing incredibly quickly. Whereas the computing industry's Moore's law shows that the performance-to-cost ratio of semiconductors doubles in just 18 months, the pace of development in the fiber-optics industry has been many times faster: The bandwidth-to-cost ratio doubles approximately every nine months. Researchers who develop new technologies for fiber optics push the boundaries of physics and manufacturing yet find themselves in one of the most competitive and dynamic industries in the world. Almost every person in the developed world uses telephony services, and people increasingly stay connected to a telecom network. Even if end users subscribe only to wireless services and use no wireline services, fiber-optic communications remain essential for back hauling cellular traffic. However, fiber-optic systems have application beyond core, back-haul networks that transport massive amounts of data: The technology is increasingly seeing use in communications applications such as office networks (LANs), short-distance interconnects between fast computers, and in-vehicle entertainment and control systems.

FOC technologies play an increasingly pervasive—if somewhat transparent—role in the lives of billions of people. Technologies that researchers designed for the telecommunications industry are beginning to see wider use—and delivering commercial gain—in other industries, such as the computing, semiconductor, transportation, and entertainment sectors. At the other end of the value chain, developers of fiber-optics technology are continuing to turn to the specialist-materials industry to overcome the physical limitations of fibers and components and to commercialize products with unusual and beneficial physical properties.