All the World’s Internet on a Single Strand of Fiber

November 4, 2014

8:00 am

If you have a gigabit Internet connection, you’re probably pretty happy with your Internet speed. But technological advances never cease, and researchers in the U.S. and the Netherlands believe they’ve discovered a way to make networking a lot faster. It’s difficult, though, to comprehend just how large of a speed increase they envision. They’re not talking about 2 Gbps, or 10, or 100. In lab testing, these researchers demonstrated network speeds of 255 Tbps, or 2,550 Gbps.

Big numbers usually need some context to help put them into perspective. It’s fast enough to download a 1GB movie in 31 microseconds, or .000003 second. Or you could transfer the entire contents of a full, 1TB hard drive in just over .003 second. By the time you lifted your finger from the touchscreen or mouse button, your transfer would be complete. In fact, the technology is so fast that a single fiber has the data transmission capacity to support the entire world’s Internet traffic at peak volume.

To understand the technology behind this advance, it helps to understand how the Internet works. Much of the Internet backbone is built using glass fiber strands no bigger than a human hair. In current fiber technology, each of these strands has only a single core. But the breakthrough came via miniaturizing this technology and replacing single-core strands with strands that have six cores arranged in a hexagon pattern around a central seventh. These additional cores create more data capacity per strand, and thus more speed.

For many, the first question about the technology might be, “How could we possibly use that much speed?” And right now, we probably can’t. But past computing has shown that as online speeds increase, online content becomes much more data heavy. It was once a challenge to download a large picture over the Internet on a 56k connection, but now we think nothing of downloading a whole movie on a fiber Internet connection. Once the infrastructure is in place, content creators will find a way to use it to its potential. For example, as video technology advances from 1080P to 4k and beyond, media will certainly require more data. Virtual reality, 3D video, hologram projection and more are all near-viable technologies that could take advantage of the increased speed.

In addition to connection speeds, the new technology could solve problems of broadband capacity. Currently, only 38.1% of the world population uses the Internet in any capacity. As more of the developing world comes online, the Internet’s architecture will need the ability to support literally billions of new users. Using this new technology (or even better future technology) when the time comes seems like common sense.

With that said, it’s possible that higher speeds will actually pose security risks as well. McAfee research suggests that when corporate network security measures begin to interfere with network speeds, administrators are more likely to favor speed over security. Faster connection speeds could make the volume of data retrieved during a security intrusion much larger, and much worse.

For now, these concerns are in the future because we’re still talking about a future technology. While proven in the lab, it probably won’t be ready for implementation anytime soon. Its use will require building all of this new multi-core fiber from scratch, and then laying countless miles of that fiber before it’s actually ready to carry its first bit of data. Existing single-core fiber will have to be replaced in order to match the new standard or today’s broadband hares like Topeka, Kansas will be tomorrow’s tortoises.

Given the sheer scale of the advance in question, should we move full speed ahead at bringing this new fiber from the lab to your computer, or would more gradual improvement be a smarter path? What new technology could best take advantage of its potential? And is the risk of such a large advance worth unknown potential for abuse?

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Ryann Rasmussen is fascinated by the Internet of Things and the impact our hyperconnected world has on modern society. She also enjoys running, reading, anything to do with music, and sharing Web goodies with the masses.

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