When Prof. Samuel B. Morse tapped out that first coded message on the key of the new telegraph machine, no one could have predicted where it would take us. Now, designers are choosing optical fiber cable more and more because it provides a cost-effective means of delivering massive bandwidth with greater network reliability and less downtime. Here are some of the latest developments in fiber optics technology at home and across the world.

While researching this article, my local cable company completed its conversion from coax to optical fiber. There are more than 250 channels of video and music programming, including both analog and digital formats. Plus, I have access to 30 channels of pay-per-view movies and four different sports networks. In addition, there are 45 channels of commercial-free music, each a different genre. Subscribers also can access the Internet via the new fiber system, and “enjoy downloads 50 times faster than dial-up service.”

My parents could not have imagined such information overload, much less the photonics theory of fiber cable. Neither could Morse, but in 1844 he suggested that “a telegraphic communication line could certainly be established across the Atlantic Ocean.” By 1866, it was done.

Today, the Fiber Optic Link Around the Globe (FLAG) is the longest single cable network in the world. Completed in 1997, the cable begins in Porthcurno, England, and runs through the Strait of Gibraltar to Palermo, Sicily, before stretching across the Mediterranean to Alexandria and Port Said, Egypt. From there, it travels overland to the FLAG Network Operations Center in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

The cable crosses the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, travels overland across Thailand and then up through the South China Sea to Lan Tao Island in Hong Kong.

It terminates in Japan in two separate locations: Ninomiya and Miura. All told the cable is some 28,000km (17,500 miles) long.

But with a new United States-China fiber optic cable in the works, FLAG stands to lose its record status. Expected to be more than 30,000 km (18,750 miles long), the cable will have a total capacity of 80 gigabytes per second, or enough to simultaneously carry four million phone calls.

Initial investors—including Teleglobe, Tyco Submarine Systems, Alcatel, KDD, AT&T, Lucent and Sprint—expect to spend a total of $1 billion to build the network.

This consortium of companies is also pooling its resources in two other major fiber cable projects: one linking the United States and South America, the other linking the States and southern Europe. These links are being built to accommodate not only increased long-distance traffic, but the next generation of Internet applications.

In other news, Lucent Technologies announced a new optical networking system they’ve designed with Bell Laboratories, based on wavelength division multiplexing (WDM), as the foundation for the next phase of increased capacity. The platform delivers up to 400 gigabits per second capacity. That is the equivalent of carrying the per-second traffic of the entire worldwide Internet. The system is capable of transmitting more than 90,000 volumes of an encyclopedia in just one second over a single fiber.

Another case in point is the fiber cable system installed in the new Washington, D.C. convention center. At 2.3 million square feet, it is the biggest building in town, designed to handle larger conventions than its predecessor. The new center designers chose Sumitomo’s FutureFLEX Air-Blown fiber system (www.sumitomoelectric.com/products/futureflex/). The Pentagon, Getty Art Museum and MGM Grand Hotel also have chosen FutureFLEX as the preferred cabling system.

Blown fiber involves installing a network of ducts into which installers “blow” special fibers. The selection of air-blown fiber allows fibers to be added as necessary instead of installing unused dark fibers to meet expected needs for expansion.

According to recent Corning data published in Opto & Laser Europe, the overall fiber optic market in the United States declined by 65 percent from 2001 to 2003. But things are looking up according to a recent survey conducted by The Electrical Distributor magazine. More than 80 percent of respondents expected overall sales of voice/data products to increase by an average of 30 percent over the next two years.

Basic information on fiber theory is available from The Fiber Optic Association at www.thefoa.org. EC

TAGLIAFERRE is proprietor of C-E-C Group. He may be reached at 703.321.9268 or lewtag@aol.com.