Fibre optics continuing to push the boundaries

Fibre optics continuing to push the boundaries

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Fibre optic technology has been something of a game-changer within the structured cabling industry, bringing superfast speeds to homes and businesses all over the world, enabling them to access much faster services.

While it has already had a tremendous effect on the industry, there appears to be little sign of a slowdown in the advancements of such technology, with experts looking to push limits of its capabilities.

One such innovation could be that uncovered by a team of researchers at University College London (UCL), which claims to have established a method that could double the distance at which data will be able to travel error-free.

Fibre optics going further

If successful, the new method has the potential to reduce the costs of long-distance optical fibre communications as there would be little need for giving signals a boost somewhere along the journey. It would represent an ideal solution for applications that require cables to be placed underground or at the bottom of the ocean.

Such a development could prove essential given that the demand for internet services is still increasing, placing a greater strain on such systems that threaten to overtake the capacity of current fibre technology.

At the moment, in order to cope with the increased level of demand, much of the information being sent out using the existing fibre infrastructure is done so using different frequencies of light, an approach much cheaper than having to pull up and replace cables.

However the increase in the large number of light signals can interact with each other and distort the signals, meaning the data is often received with errors.

The likelihood of errors is increased when transmission times are extended, but this latest study, published in Scientific Reports and sponsored by the EPSRC, claims to have found the answer.

Experts have suggested that by undoing these interactions, it is possible to dramatically improve transmission distances.

Study author Dr Robert Maher, UCL Electronic & Electrical Engineering, said: “By eliminating the interactions between the optical channels, we are able to double the distance signals can be transmitted error-free, from 3190km to 5890km, which is the largest increase ever reported for this system architecture. The challenge is to devise a technique to simultaneously capture a group of optical channels, known as a super-channel, with a single receiver. This allows us to undo the distortion by sending the data channels back on a virtual digital journey at the same time.”

Polina Bayvel, professor of optical communications and networks added: "One of the biggest global challenges we face is how to maintain communications with demand for the Internet booming – overcoming the capacity limits of optical fibres cables is a large part of solving that problem.”

Battling against the elements

It is not only advancements in the technology itself that are getting more ambitious, with several new infrastructural projects set to test the limits and boundaries of how far the technology can go.

For instance, Arctic Fibre has unveiled plans to thread 15,600 kilometres of fibre optic cable through the Arctic region of North America, where much of the ice that has long-covered the land is beginning to temporarily recede.

Not that the project is any less of a challenge however, with much of the ocean's depths representing a substantial step into the unknown, with crews set to rely on sonar and other sophisticated pieces of technology.

Once completed, the cable's northern route will run from Tokyo to London, relentlessly bisecting the Pacific, Arctic, and Atlantic Oceans. The 24-terabit connection will then transfer data between the two cities at a top speed of 154 milliseconds - 24 ms faster than the current top speed.

Working within the short window of five to eight weeks between August and October is a challenge in itself, but there could be issues even when the installation process is finished.

The ocean is full of potentially harmful risks to cabling, meaning that an effective maintenance strategy will be perhaps more crucial than any initial installation plans, particularly when the winter months provide such treacherous conditions.

Paul Kravis, vice president of International Telecom, told IEEE Spectrum: “The problem with that project is the fact that it’s in the north.

“If this cable gets broken in the wintertime right now, there’s not going to be any vessel that can fix it.”

Nevertheless, experts are still hoping to press ahead with their plans, meaning that it could be up and running as early as the end of 2016.

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