Looking to the future and new applications

THE WORLD OF OUTSIDE CONNECTIVITY IS CHANGING. This time, it is the relationship between copper and fiber-optic cable outside of our homes that is in flux.

Most of us get broadband service into our homes (and into the workplace) over some form of copper line, either through a cable modem or a digital subscriber line (DSL). Either way, there are some absolutes about those systems:

1. Copper, the communications workhorse since the development of phone systems early last century, can only carry high-speed transmissions for limited distances (tens or hundreds of meters) without amplification.

2. Fiber optics, developed in the 1970s and whose effective distances without amplification can be measured in tens of miles, can maintain higher speeds and greater quantities of data transmission over longer distances than copper will ever hope to reach.

If you understand this, then it is obvious that the closer your home or work connection is to an external fiber-optic network node, the better prepared it will be for the future. Add to this the cost of a single strand of fiber has dropped to or below that of coaxial cable (for which prices have gone through the roof). Granted, fiber’s installation costs may top coaxial, but those costs are decreasing and will probably become both affordable and worth the added expense for many users in the foreseeable future. The simple fact that copper and fiber are in the same price market is new and surprising.

The Cadillac of copper-based home broadband connectivity is a top-tier cable modem system, but even those systems are hampered by the limitations of copper. Just think about how they work: a service provider uses fiber optics to bring broadband access to a neighborhood network node. From there, it distributes that signal into homes over copper coaxial cables with amplification, as needed. But that signal, coming from the node over copper, is a finite resource. If a user accesses the signal when there are only a few other users, then the flow is strong and plentiful. On evenings and weekends, the resource becomes scarce and more difficult to acquire.

Previous generations could have had this conversation about the inconvenience of party-line telephones. When no one else was on the line, the system worked just fine, but as soon as demand spiked, there were delays, frustration and irritation, to which modern users can relate. A time will come when discussions about slow network connections and too many users for a copper system to support will be from the distant past. Future generations will chuckle remembering the connectivity problems of the early 21st century.

There are two solutions to this problem. Either researchers will learn how to better compress data so it requires less space across networks, or the marketplace will affordably bring faster pipelines (read: fiber) closer to our homes. Actually, both are happening.

For the first time, fiber connections or significantly shortened copper lines are on the horizon for home users. This is big news in the world of outside connectivity. Steve Rutkowski, a product manager for International Fiber Systems, GE Security, Newtown, Conn., said there is no doubt that the days are numbered for us to continue to receive broadband in our homes over lengthy copper connections.

Fiber is and always has been faster than copper, but it has always been more expensive than copper and too costly for the average home user. Because of the recent juxtaposition of copper and fiber prices, coupled with the modern world’s insatiable demand for greater bandwidth, copper lines to homes will become shorter and probably eventually disappear, and fiber lines will get closer and eventually all the way to typical home users. This will result in shorter download and upload times for individual users and greater productivity for society in general.

Outside, connectivity is changing. Fiber optics and high-speed networks are gaining popularity, with the former nearing deployment to consumer households.       EC

MUNYAN is a freelance writer in the Kansas City, Mo., area, specializing in business writing and telecommunications. He can be reached at www.russwrites.com.