The Benefits of Fiber Communications

By: Robert Bell | Posted: 15th March 2010

In recent years, the "digital revolution" and the incredible advances in computing power and communications bandwidth have spurred a slow but steady refurbishing of the world's communications backbones (if you prefer, infrastructures). Among the most impressive advances is the use of optical fiber for communications systems, which enjoy many advantages over the once standard - in fact, once revolutionary - metals-based communications methods. These advantages are many and diverse, and even the few highlights featured in this article are enough to impress, not to mention the future that can be imagined as the technology fully matures.

Distance, length and diameter
Because of greater signal integrity and less reduction in its strength (called "attenuation"), optical systems offer greater distances that metallic systems and do not need the in-line "repeaters" that the latter do. A single-line, voice-grade copper system cannot normally carry a signal farther than a mile or so without those signal boosters. In comparison, optical systems routinely carry signals over 60 times farther without any additional processing, active or passive. As emerging technologies move from the drawing board to "the grid," the future promises even greater distances.

The fact that more bandwidth is available in a smaller diameter line, and that there are no signal processors to buy or install for many systems at their current lengths, translates into huge savings for communications companies and consumers. Instead of cables and conduits so big a car could drive through them were they to be hollowed out, fiber-optical systems use cables that start at about human hair size. A cable the size of your standard home extension cord is sufficient for many city-size communications systems, and bundling multiples leads to incredible economies of scale.

Easy to deploy
Just 20 years ago, as computing and communications engineers began a serious acceleration of inventiveness, facilities planners would be tearing their hair out trying to figure out where to lay all the cables for corporate networks, not to mention the communications company technologists trying to service multiple firms or even communities. In many buildings, it became commonplace to use duct systems for installation of these cables. Now, with small diameters and lighter weight, optical cables offer far greater flexibility in placement and do not have to encroach on other system territory (like HVAC ducts).

Manufacturers are already making much longer optical cables than metallic ones, with some up to 7.5 miles long. Even the denser, more capacious "multimode" cables can get up to 2.5 miles long, although most of the present standards set a maximum length of 1.2 miles or less. The length of the cables is determined, of course, by the demands of the industries using them, and this is bound to change in the future, as well. Both single- and multi-mode cables will evolve and change as technology for manufacturing, installing and using them proceeds apace.

Ease of use
One not-as-obvious benefit of the longer lengths is easier and less costly installation. On top of that, the fiber cables can be installed using the equipment developed for laying cooper and coaxial cables, with only small tweaks needed to accommodate the smaller size, reduced pull tension (fiber cables break more easily than metallic) and differing amount of flexibility for bending or turning corners.

When systems engineers design a new optical system, they try to meet the needs for growth over at least a 15-20-year period. It is notoriously hard to predict anything in the future, of course, but future expansions to the system can be simplified if additional, spare fiber cables are installed the first time out. It would be far more costly to install additional cables at a later date.

Non-conductive material and security
Fiber optical systems also have the advantage of being "dielectric" in nature. Since it has no metal ingredients, the cable can be installed where there is pre-existing or anticipated EMI (electromagnetic interference) and RFI (radio frequency interference). This means that the proximity of power lines, railroad tracks, powerful electromagnets and power-carrying wire will not be a deal-breaker for a new installation. Dielectric cables are safer in areas that experience a high incidence of lightning strikes, too.

The dielectric nature of the cables also means greater security, as it is not possible to remotely detect signals traveling along them - the only way to do that is to physically interfere with the cable itself, which would be detected by various forms of surveillance and alarm systems. This additional security is a serious benefit for banks, government agencies and others who have serious security needs.

The bottom line is that fiber optics is already an affordable technology, with numerous technological benefits to go along with the economic advantages. As the technology continues maturing, it will get even better. The benefits of fiber optic systems have a major role in the success of telecommunications - not to mention the history of the world, which is now being written.With SHAW Business Solutions - no matter your size, we've got you covered. For over a decade, our High-Performance Network has met the business solutions coast-to-coast. Because we own and operate a continent-wide fiber optic network, wherever you are, we're there too!
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Tags: computing power, digital revolution, extension cord, s communications