The telecommunications industry, broader global digital landscape and fibre optic technology has improved significantly over the past five decades. Currently, fibre networks span whole countries and oceans while transmitting data over vast distances at near-light speed.
A brief history of fibre networks
Fibre technology is ubiquitous in today’s modern telecommunications networks, but its technology has a long history and is quite simple in concept since glass, the fundamental element of optic fibre, was first produced in 3,600 BC in Mesopotamia.
In the 1790s French inventor Claude Chappe invented the optical semaphore telegraph and in 1880 Alexander Graham Bell patented the Photophone, an optical telephone system but his earlier invention, the telephone, was more practical and was the preferred development.
A breakthrough in fibre optic cable technology occurred in 1966 when Charles Kao and George Hockman demonstrated that glass fibre could theoretically transmit data over long distances. In 1970 scientists developed a low-loss optical fibre that proved Kao and Hockman’s hypothesis, thus setting the stage for the installation of the first fibre networks.
In April 1977 in Long Beach, California General Telephone and Electronics tested and deployed the world’s first live telephone traffic through a fibre-optic system transmitting at 6 Mbps. Bell followed in May 1977 with an optical telephone communication system installed in Chicago, covering 2.4 kilometres. In the 1980s, fibre networks expanded as telecommunications companies used the higher capacity, cost-effective technology. Demand for fibre networks increased with the development of the Internet in the 1990s. Today more than 80 percent of the world’s long-distance voice and data traffic is transmitted through optical-fibre cables and optic fibre networks form the infrastructure of the digital world.
FTTH (Fibre to the Home)
The use and demand for optical fibre has grown tremendously and optical-fibre applications are numerous. Telecommunication applications are widespread, ranging from global networks to desktop computers. These involve the transmission of voice, data, or video over distances of less than a meter to hundreds of kilometres, using one of a few standard fibre designs in one of several cable designs.
While fibre networks cover the entire globe, the ‘last mile’ of telecommunication still uses copper wiring but with fibre optic cables becoming less expensive, fibre-to-the-home, or FTTH installations run from a central data source all of the way through the ‘last mile.’
The next evolution will consist of the deployment of 5G networks, the fifth generation of mobile network technology with faster speeds, cleaner connections, and increased capacity for individual devices. Fibre networks are critical in this cellular wireless technology. 5G networks will reach gigabyte speeds using millimetre waves, a high frequency that can transfer more data but at a lower signal penetration. Consequently, fibre networks will need to be denser to adequately support 5G cell deployments and will require significant investment over the next decade.
Optical fibre is used extensively for the transmission of data by, for example, multinational firms needing secure, reliable systems to transfer data to cable television companies using fibre for the delivery of digital video and data services.
Additionally, since 5G include faster mobile devices and home Internet, a host of other exciting technologies will be deployed. Autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence will both be able to function effectively with the increased bandwidth and low latency of 5G networks. These technologies require data inputs in real-time with continuous connectivity. Intelligent transportation systems, such as smart highways with intelligent traffic lights, automated toll booths, and changeable message signs, also use fibre-optic-based telemetry systems.
Another important application for optical fibre is the biomedical industry. Fibre-optic systems are used in most modern telemedicine devices for transmission of digital diagnostic images. Other applications for optical fibre include space, military, automotive, and the industrial sector.
The Internet of Things, virtual reality, and humanoid robots are additional developments that will exploit the major advances of 5G networks delivering vast amounts of data at high speeds. Thus, 5G will allow many devices to connect and communicate wirelessly concurrently.
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