As broadband expands throughout the globe, most communications are still carried by fiber optic cable. Can we take a minute to celebrate the marvel of this technology?
Scientists have known for 150 years that glass can be used to guide light. In the 1980s, manufacturers improved techniques to make highly transparent threads of glass the width of a human hair and over a hundred kilometers long. Simultaneously laser technology was getting cheaper and smaller, and digital data processing getting faster.
So why bother with fiber instead of traditional copper (the first undersea copper cable was laid across the Atlantic in 1858)?
For starters, fiber optic cables have an unbelievable capacity for carrying information. A single fiber, for example, can carry 3,000,000 simultaneous phone conversations. Since a cable can comprise over 1000 fibers, this means a single cable could support three billion conversations — or half the planet speaking with the other half, simultaneously.
Light travels efficiently with very low attenuation. Signals can maintain sufficient strength for over 100 kilometers before needing a boost.
Cables carrying information with pulses of light aren’t subject to electromagnetic interference the way typical copper cables are. The signals avoid corruption (and eavesdropping is much more difficult).
And one more important characteristic of fiber optic: the main ingredient in a cable is silica (aka sand). While copper cables around the world are highly prone to theft (copper can cost a few dollars a pound, and large cables will weigh tons), if thieves want silica, it’s a lot easier to pilfer the beach!