A World of Glass — How Covid Did Not Break Our Network
Amid the struggles in the pandemic crises, few people have paused to consider that the Internet is functioning well. It is doing so because of fibre optic networks — which were installed just in time to avert a communications catastrophe!
Upfront, let me say that this praise of the Internet is a comment that is not addressed to rural residents: 30 million of them cannot get broadband at all — but that is not the fiber’s fault. It is a policy choice that can easily be addressed by government. Yes, easily. And relatively cheaply. It costs more than $1-million to build a mile of road. It costs about $50,000 to build a mile of fibre network.
The ‘Net functioned well despite the fact that traffic on the ‘Net surged by half during the past year, as office workers uploaded their files, people connected by video, and stir-crazy residents downloaded entertainment. Yet aside from a few minor glitches, the network kept serving up the broadband.
By comparison, can you imagine that increase in terms of road traffic? In many cities, people already lose six days a year waiting in traffic. Add another 50% load, and the roads would be impassible!
In addition to being cheap, the other difference with fiber optical networks is that they have huge capacity!
Industry analyst Lawrence Surtees says that fiber’s miraculous performance happens because its bandwidth and its speed is just so much greater than the previous copper wire connections: “If we didn’t have those (fibers) that we’ve been (building) in the last five years, I think we would be faced with collapsing networks, like a blackout-type situation.”
So, when COVID hit we were one technology generation away from total global communications shut-down! Five years makes that much difference.
We need to pause for a moment and worship this thing called fiber.
The use of light to carry signals goes back a long way. The inventor of the telephone himself, Alexander Graham Bell, used sunlight to carry voice messages. He would speak into a device that warped a flexible mirror, and a receiving device would reverse the process. In 1880 he said about his Photophone “I have heard a ray of the sun laugh and cough and sing!”
The little flaw in his system was that it needed sunlight. He also said “I have been able to hear a shadow.” Not ideal.
A new way of transmitting the light was needed.
A fiber optic thread is a small thread of glass about the thickness of a human hair. It has a clear central core and a cladding of reflective glass, to keep the signal inside. There are many inventors vying for the title of “creator”, but its first commercial use became possible with a new method patented by Corning Glass fifty years ago.
They came up with a way to make glass that is so clear that if water had the same clarity, you could see to the bottom of the deepest ocean.
The stuff is stronger than steel.
It is not affected by external events like lightning flashes, because it does not use electrical signals.
It uses — wait for it! — light. Light made by lasers. Laser light that can be made in many colours, so that signals can ride on top of each other. Light has such a high frequency that signals of 100 Gigabits a second are common fare for fiber… that’s more than 10 4k super-rez movies at the same time. Are you going to hit the capacity wall of fiber on your Zoom call? I think not.
Enough fiber — 2 billion kilometers — has been installed to be go from Earth to Jupiter and back, if you could find a reason to want to do that.
So we live in a world of glass. We are connected as a planetary mind by threads of pure silica. We talk and sing with waves of light. This truly is an Age of Glass — and in the crush of a pandemic world, we need to take a minute and appreciate those humble little threads.
I’m not talking about something overboard; not like starting each Zoom call with a group incantation: “Thank you Mr. Fibre…”
No, just a quiet reflection, every once in a while, on something we did right.
After all, the fiber cable is reflecting for you — every second!