Fiber optic technology had its first commercial application in the telecommunication industry in 1977; since then, it has grown to become the industry standard for terrestrial transmission of all telecommunication information, including telephones, computers, cable television and industrial instrumentation.
Because of the technology's significant advantages, most experts agree that today, any communication system that does not use fiber optics is essentially obsolete.
By far, fiber optic's greatest application to date has been within the telephone industry. Telephone companies began replacing their old copper wire systems with optical fiber lines early in the technology's history. Now, fiber optics comprise the backbone of all competitive phone companies' architectures, as well as provide the long distance connection between city phone systems.
Unlike the old telecommunication technology, which used electronic pulses to transmit information down copper wire lines, fiber optic networks use light waves to carry information over fiber lines. Each fiber line consists of a bundle of very thin tubes of either glass or plastic, called optical fibers. Each fiber is thinner than a human hair and acts as a one-way channel for transmitting information; therefore, two optical fibers are needed for two-way communication.
The light-pulse method of transmitting information or data has many advantages over traditional copper-conductor systems, including:
- The ability to send signals over greater distances. Because light signals encounter very little resistance during their journey over fiber lines, they can be sent over longer distances without the continuous boosting necessary to send and maintain electrical signals the same distance over copper line.
- A wider bandwidth. Fiber optics have an information-carrying capacity, or bandwidth, that is thousands of times greater than that of copper circuits. This means that fiber optic technology can handle the tremendous amount of data generated by our Information Superhighway society and move it fast enough to meet its requirements.
- Immunity to electrical noises, radio frequency interference, voltage surges and water, all of which can cause service interruptions in electronic pulse systems. Fiber optic networks are also immune to eavesdropping.
- Much higher transmission speeds with very few errors.
- Less attenuation. Electrical pulses suffer greater attenuation, or signal loss, on their journey down copper lines than light pulses do down fiber lines.
- Cost effectiveness. Fiber optic technology is easy to upgrade to higher levels of speed and performance. In fact, many networks already consist of much greater bandwidth than customers currently require, making the initial investment in fiber optics a cost-effective strategy for telecommunications companies.
All of these advantages are part of a system that uses smaller and lighter cables than copper conductor systems at a price that is competitive with the old technology -- and continually declining with increasing demand.
The future of fiber optic technology is definitely bright. Recent changes in laws regulating the telecommunications industry, such as the Telecommunications Act of 1996, have opened competition in the telephone and television marketplaces, spurring tremendous growth in both industries and driving the expansion of fiber optic networks. In addition, companies that employ fiber optic technology are able to offer customers more services, greater reliability and faster and clearer communications than those which do not, ensuring them the competitive edge in a tight market.
New products, such as two-way television and videophones, too expensive to develop using the old technology, are now practical thanks to fiber optics and loom just over the horizon. As the Information Superhighway continues to expand at a phenomenal rate, the bandwidth and high-speed capabilities of fiber optic technology become not just a luxury but a necessity. Paul Allen is general manager of Adelphia Business Solutions' Northeast Ohio office. Allen has extensive experience in the telecommunications industry, having held senior management and sales positions with MCI WorldCom and British Telecom.