Fiber optics celebrates 40th anniversary with new innovations

Happy 40th! That’s right, fiber optics technology is over the hill. Not retiring or fizzling out, this technology continues to improve with age and is still a driving force in the ways in which we make telephone calls, watch cable TV, and use the Internet.

Before fiber optic technology was developed, electronic communication was conducted over copper lines with information passed via electrons. The inefficiencies associated with copper technology over long distances spawned the need for something better.

In 1966, two engineers at Standard Telecommunication Laboratories, Charles Kao and George Hockham, toyed with the idea that glass fibers could be used to transfer information by light. Thus began fiber optics and the eventual ability to transmit terabits of information per second.

Meanwhile, Carnegie Mellon was in the process of developing its new computer science PhD program. This time period represented an advent of technology and acted as a prelude to the future and the continued maturation of technology and global communication.

“The ability to transfer information via photons through fiber optical cable has allowed for an incomparable speed to be reached over the conventional electron transfer method,” said Joseph Laws, a graduate student in electrical and computer engineering.

As fiber optics technology developed, companies began to lay undersea cable, leading to the almost instantaneous transmission of data across the oceans.

“During the tech boom of the late 1990s, many people invested heavily in a fiber optic infrastructure with the expectation of increased bandwidth needs,” said Richard Allison, a graduate electrical and computer engineering student. “The Robert L. Preger Intelligent Workplace here at Carnegie Mellon has fiber optic lines that run all the way to the outlets at the workstations.”

Allison explained, however, that “with the dot-com bubble burst and increasing efficiency in communication protocols, the demand has flatlined and a large amount of installed fiber optic cable goes unused to this day.”

As a result, the cost of using fiber optics has become very affordable. It is just a matter of increasing the infrastructure for people to tap into it.

New innovations are spreading to other parts of electronics. It is theorized that fiber optics technology may be utilized in the future for computational processing. “Multiple efforts are underway to use the same technology in fiber optics to perform computations. The key element is using light waves to store information,” stated Laws.

Fiber-optic interconnection networks can be used for various signal processing applications, including transmitting real-time data from servers to individual computer users.

If light can be used, given its negligible mass and demonstrated efficiency, the speed of computations could increase while decreasing the size of the processor. Fiber optics technology is a promising alternative.

“Once this process is mastered we will have much higher data throughput,” said Laws.
At present, Intel, IBM, and many smaller startup companies are attempting to create silicon-based semiconductors to control and create light waves.

Laws concluded, “With this vested interest, [fiber optics] should continue to develop and drive the future of computations and communications.”