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Fiber optics

July 29, 2003

A public radio commentary

Recently an early morning phone call woke me. The caller, a regular listener, had heard me talk about how glass had changed the world. He said that I'd missed the boat: The single largest effect glass has had on the world, he said, is apparent every time you make a phone call. It's fiber optic cables. Indeed he was right.

A fiber optic cable is truly an amazing and revolutionary thing. It's a piece of glass used to guide light. Yes, just like water flows through a pipe, and electricity through wires, you can guide light with a special type of glass.

The key is to make the glass as clear as possible. If the ocean were as transparent as a fiber optic cable, you could float on the ocean's surface and examine the ocean floor to its greatest depth. So clear is this glass fiber that a light pulse can travel for sixteen miles before it dims.

Engineers use fiber optic cables to send phone calls around the globe. Just like communicating with smoke signals or the dots and dashes of Morse code, the words you say into the telephone receiver are turned into coded flashes of light that travel down the fiber.

To see the effect of this ultra-clear fiber you need only call Australia from the United States. My wife recalls calling her sister, who lived there in the 1970s. At that time you'd have to say a few words then wait for them to be transmitted, then wait for the other person to respond. In the past there was a delay because the signal bounced off a satellite. Today, thanks to fiber optics, there is none; it now sounds like talking to your next-door neighbor.

Right now phone companies are moving rapidly to revolutionize the world with these fibers. Every day installers lay enough new fiber optic cable to circle the earth three times. There will soon be enough to carry trillions of pieces of information a second - not just phone calls, but e-mail, photos, audio and video. Already there are eight cables crossing the North Atlantic Ocean, and six more crossing the Pacific. In 1997 a major transoceanic cable, called FLAG - for Fiber-Optic Link around the Globe - was laid between London and Tokyo, with branches to Spain, India and China. In fact, China is one of the most enthusiastic advocates of fiber optic cable, laying some two and a half million miles so far.

It's speed they're after: It would take hours to download a full-length movie on the current copper phone lines that come to your house, but with a fiber optic connection, it happens in seconds. By 2010 we'll have enough fiber optic capacity so that every person on the globe could download a dozen movies in a few seconds.

I suppose this is progress, but what exactly we'll do with a dozen movies a second is beyond me.

Copyright 2003 William S. Hammack Enterprises