OUR taste for the Internet is insatiable — traffic is growing so fast that its transmission systems may soon be filled to capacity.
But scientists are coping, finding ingenious ways to satisfy our deep bandwidth hunger.
Of course, they can’t accelerate the speed of light as it flies down the glass fibers of central networks carrying our Internet messages worldwide. The laws of nature limit that. Yet they can tap other characteristics of light to pack layers of information into each optical fiber in the network, so that far more data can flow simultaneously down those glass backbones.
Old systems used light that was either on or off — like flashlight signals — to send information along the fibers in the binary language of zeros and ones. But light is an electromagnetic wave, so it has a whole electrical field that scientists are now putting to work to add to the information on each wavelength.
Alcatel-Lucent recently announced a system for telecommunications service providers that takes advantage of both the polarization and phases of light to encode data. The system can more than double the capacity of a single fiber, said James Watt, head of the company’s optics division. Such a system, for example, can transmit more than twice the number of high-definition TV channels than can now be streamed concurrently.
The new equipment is part of a continued research drive to increase the capacity of each strand of optical fiber, said Keren Bergman, a professor of electrical engineering atColumbia University and head of its Lightwave Research Laboratory. “We are stuffing more information in the same space,” she said.
A fiber is no thicker than human hair, butt can carry many wavelengths of laser light, with each wavelength adding to the bits transmitted per second. The bit rates now attainable are in the billions (gigabits) per second or even trillions (terabits) per second.
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