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Fiber Optics - Internet, Cable and Telephone Communication

by Julia Hall Bio

Fiber optics is a medium that uses glass or plastic fibers to transmit data in the form of light sent in intervals along long distances. Information is sent as pulses of light that must be repeated at various points. Fiber optic lines can carry much more information at a time than traditional wires. The ability of fiber optic lines to carry digital data has significantly contributed to advances in digital communications because glass fibers are less subject to interference. Fiber optic cable is more expensive and harder to install and maintain and that often hinders its use in some communities.

Optical communication has a long history of development that can be traced back to the 1790s when an optical telegraph designed by the Chappe brothers in France used lights mounted on poles to relay messages. In 1854, John Tyndall discovered that light signals could be bent using streams of water. Alexander Graham Bell designed and patented an optical phone in 1880 called a photophone. However, his earlier telephone was more within the technical capabilities of that period. For the next hundred years, advances would continue in the use of light manipulation for use in a variety of applications.

Heinrich Lamn introduced the idea of transmitting images through fiber optics in 1930. His image was that of a light bulb filament he expected to use to look into the human body. However, he was unable to obtain a patent for his idea because earlier patents by Baird for using glass rods for television and Hansell’s patent to use glass rods for facsimiles were already on record. The first bundled fibers were introduced in the mid-1950s and microwave and laser technology soon followed. The 1970s led to emerging technology to purify light strands able to transmit data more efficiently and by the late 1970s and early 1980s, telephone communications began rebuilding their infrastructures to depend completely on fiber optics. In 1991, the fiber optic crystal was developed that transmits data through diffraction much more efficiently than internal reflection. With the FLAG fiber-optic cable being placed across the ocean in the late 1990s, the infrastructure was in place for the expansion of the internet and worldwide digital communication. From the late 1790s thru today, the technology of using fiber optics has influenced society in an endless variety of industries as well as personal communications. In addition to telecommunications, military, medical, industrial, broadcast industries, data storage, and security networks are part of the expanding number of industries that rely on fiber optic technology.

For more on fiber optic technology history, applications and future use, consult the following resources.

  • History of Fiber Optics – This is a detailed overview on the history of fiber optics from the first “optical telegraph” in the 1790s using a series of lights, through the Fiber Optic Link around the Globe (FLAG) providing the internet structure used today.
  • Short History of Fiber Optics – Here is brief look at the history of fiber optics that draws from two books, Fiber Optics Technician's Handbook, by Jim Hayes and the author’s book, City of Light: The Story of Fiber Optics. This article highlights the use of single fiber optics in communication presented by Dr. C. K. Kao at a meeting of the Institution of Electrical Engineers in London during 1966.
  • The Laser and Fiber Optic Revolution – According to this article, the technology of fiber optics began with quantum mechanics that Einstein used in 1906 to explain how electrons can absorb and emit energy that could be trained or focused into a single frequency. While it was some time before technology was able to produce a steady laser light, the door was opened for the future of laser and fiber optic applications in communication.
  • Lasers and Fiber Optic Timeline – Albert Einstein was the first to propose a theory of stimulated emission in 1917. This theory would be used as a basis for advancing research exploring the energy of light. Microwave applications would not be introduced until 1954 and laser concepts, based on the emission theory, would not be introduced until 1958. Charles Kao and George Hockham first introduced fiber optics in a 1966 paper. By 1997, the Fiber Optic Link Around the Globe (FLAG) became the basis providing the infrastructure for today’s internet.
  • Research Breakthrough in Fiber Optics Communication – According to this press release from the University of California, researchers have demonstrated the success of a specific long wavelength laser using a single semiconductor crystal that will provide a crucial step towards low-cost fiber optic transmitters.
  • Capacity Limits of Fiber Optic Communications – This study looks at determining factors affecting the capacity limits of fiber optic communications using today’s technology. By understanding limitations, research can focus on improving overall fiber optic capacity and determine how to set future limits on optical networks to facilitate uninterrupted communication. Advanced technologies will be needed to maintain maximum capacity in all fiber optic networks.
  • Fiber Optic Communications – This publication gives a clear explanation of the fiber optic data transmission system used in various cable, telephone, and internet networks. Included is an explanation of how various networks manage optical communication following SONET and SDH system protocols.
  • The Role of Fiber Optic Technology in the Information Revolution - The merging of several optical technologies has contributed to the information revolution. Laser technology, optical communications, and the development of extremely transparent glass are just a few technologies that have joined to advance communications at unbelievable speeds.
  • Fiber Optic Communication in Modern Aircraft – Optical fibers used in modern aircraft replaces heavy coaxial cable previously used to transmit radio signals. Coaxial cables have huge drawbacks including limiting bandwidth and susceptibility to corrosion. Corrosion is not a problem with glass fiber optics that uses ceramic connectors. In addition, fiber optics is much lighter and less restrictive than older coaxial cables. This report recommends fiber optic links suitable for use in modern aircraft.
  • High Fiber - This video, a part of the PBS: Need to Know series, documents the advanced use of high fiber optics to provide internet service at twenty times the speed of broadband service in the US at a fraction of the current cost.
  • High Definition Broadband Networks in Australia – This press release shows once again how other countries are speeding ahead of the US in their use of new fiber optic technology to improve internet access speeds and availability.
  • Fiber Network Expansion Projects – Fiber optic expansion projects such as this one at the Washington State Department of Information Services, will improve the ability to share information across improved internet networks. Such expansion projects are needed throughout the US to advance the fiber optic technology needed to support the huge growth and demand for internet access.
  • Broadband Value for Rural America – In this report, there is a direct correlation shown between the economic growth in rural America and high-speed or broadband internet access availability. Unlike many European countries that have made high-speed internet service widely available, throughout the US there remains vast areas of the country that have limited internet access. Research confirms that high-speed internet access has a direct impact on rural communities and businesses.
  • The Future is Calling – A National Geographic report shows the role fiber optic communications plays in future worldwide network and communication infrastructures. An eye-opening statement made in this report is that while it took a hundred years of technology to connect the first billion people by wire communications, it has taken only ten years with optical communications to connect the next billion people. The future of fiber optics continues to grow at an even faster pace.