The Need for Speed

How fast is too fast in terms of communication? Unless our lives and actions start being measured in seconds, do we really need a 43 Tbps connection to fulfill our everyday tasks?

Soyola Baasan, Managing Director, DASpedia / Infinity Communication Group

May 8, 2015

4 Min Read
The Need for Speed

Human beings have always depended on light. The sun's rays provide energy. For millennia fires have kept us warm at night and predators at bay. We learned to communicate over large distances using fire signals and then by building light houses. Gradually we learned to direct light with glass and mirrors. Today, we've mastered the properties of light to the point we can manipulate it to communicate almost instantly using media such as fiber optic cable.

Light has been with us since the beginning, but fiber optic communication is a fairly recent phenomenon. It wasn't until early the 1970s that low-loss fiber optic cables became a reality and the mid-1990s that commercial optical cables were laid under the sea linking the continents. Fiber optic as a medium now dominates today's communication infrastructure and it is very fast. However, some believe we need even more speed. The debate is on -- How fast do we need our communications to be?

First some background: Legend has it the first commercial handheld cellphone went on sale in March, 1984. The culprit was Motorola's DynaTac 8000x, known as "the Brick" among its early adopters. This monstrosity of a phone weighed almost 2lbs and had a battery life of 30 minutes of continuous use. The Brick cost almost $4,000 -- equivalent to $9,500 today adjusted for inflation.

The concept of mobile communication wasn't new back then. The elite could afford car phones; radio enthusiasts played with two way radios; important folks used trunked radio systems; and the rest had their short range cordless phones. However introduction of the Brick by engineers at Motorola using a 1G analog network built by Ameritech (today's AT&T) effectively launched the modern-day communication craze.

3G was supposed to be a true broadband mobile technology, launching the inception of smartphones among the masses in the mid-2000s. The technology enabled typical wireless consumers to do more than make phone calls or send text messages. Some thought we were nearing the limit of consumer demand from their phones. Who in their right mind would want to watch videos on their tiny phones back in the late 90s? YouTube wasn't even a thing yet, and Netflix was mailing DVDs.

In 2014, scientists in Denmark were able to reach speeds of 43 terabytes (Tbps) per second using a single-mode fiber with just one laser transmitter. Although higher speeds were reached previously by companies such as NEC & Corning under a controlled setting, the accomplishment set by researchers at the Technical University of Denmark was unique because it was more commercially viable. You can download a full-length HD movie in the blink of an eye at that speed. Not everybody will be able to practically utilize a connection like that, but that's not the point. It shows the full potential of fiber optic cable for future communications.

4G LTE deployments by US major wireless carriers are now mostly finished and the applications are wondrous. Video conferencing on mobile device was once a science fiction fantasy, but has today become a reality. We're still on the watch for flying cars, but it looks like cars are going to be self-driven before they levitate off the road.

Wireless at lightning speed is now upon us, and 5G is supposedly around the corner. Some say commercial 5G deployments will start five years from now in 2020. No doubt, faster, cheaper and smaller will be the motto for wireless companies. Experts are talking about speeds up to 1 Gbps, but 100 Mpbs is more realistic.

Although that's nowhere near what optical networks can deliver, it is plenty of speed for most of us. It doesn't make much of a difference if a full-length HD video downloads a few seconds faster or slower on our mobile devices. Unless of course, everybody starts making 3D video calls or virtual-reality mobile games become the next big thing among future mobile customers. We really don't know at this point.

So back to the question: How fast is too fast in terms of communication? Unless our lives and actions start being measured in seconds, do we really need a 43 Tbps connection to fulfill our everyday tasks? At what point does the speed that information travels become irrelevant? Or will we still be striving to deploy networks capable of 1 Petabit per second because traders on Wall Street demand an edge to move securities within a millisecond or microsecond?

What do you think?

— Soyola Baasan and John Hayes,

About the Author(s)

Soyola Baasan

Managing Director, DASpedia / Infinity Communication Group

Soyola Baasan has 15 years of telecommunication industry experience including fiber optics, RF components and DAS systems. He provides support and industry guidance to DASpedia and acts as a managing director.

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