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What is Glass Fiber and Why is it so important in the Internet Age

This map represents 750,000 miles of fiber optic cables that are currently running under our oceans. And when I think of the internet, I think of 5G, I think of Starlink satellites, I think of WiFi, but I never think about what's inside all of these cables and how the future of the internet relies on these hair thin, super durable strands of glass.

Glass is 5,000 year old material that has always had a rich history with technology, and without it, you wouldn't be reading this article right now.

fiberglass map of the world

All modern means of communication is entirely enabled by glass and hundreds and hundreds of millions of miles of this stuff made every year. We talked to John Ballato who is a professor of material science and engineering at Clemson university. He is also the Sirrine Endowed Chair of Optical Fiber.

The industry, have installed 5 billion kilometres of optical fibre since the first fibre networks were installed in the 1980s. We don't consider ourselves to be living in a wired world; rather, we consider ourselves to be living in a wireless environment. It's not unusual to wonder where the fibre is in all of this. So what occurs is that you have your tablet or smartphone, and you're downloading or uploading files. Microwaves are used to send the data wirelessly to a nearby router.

Also Read: Why 5G Will Change The World | 5G vs 4G Speed Comparison, Detailed Explanation

And in most cases, it travels as electrons from the router to a centralized hub and then out the back of that, that information is all converted into light, gets propagated around the world over a fiber made out of glass.

The telecommunication's quality piece of Optical Fiber is a hair thin piece of glass, and we are not break it with bare hands. But to get to that super-durable piece of glass, well, it starts out looking like a preform used today which can be up to two stories tall and much, much wider. Within that preform is a core that is pure glass, surrounded by a glass cladding with a lower refractive index This allows light to travel easily through the core without scattering or fading. The preforms are then pulled into hair-thin strands of glass and then coated with a protective plastic housing. 99% of the material that goes into the glass optical fiber is, by and large, the same as it was 50 years ago. We've just gotten better at making more of it.

What's actually moves through that glass?

Telecommunication has relied on a pattern of pulses akin to Morse code to transfer information since the telegram. So, pulses are broadcast across long distances and subsequently decoded to relay information on the other end, but we haven't always utilised glass to do so. Copper was originally the standard for telephones, cable TV, and the early stages of the internet since it was much more expensive and heavier. And while copper is still used in a lot of connections today, it has two major drawbacks:

one, electrons long copper, they don't travel as quickly as light

Two, electrons cannot pass through one another.

So a single copper wire, it just isn't as efficient in sending data back and forth. Light, on the other hand, can move far more freely through a single strand of glass. And crucially, light can carry more data because it has a higher frequency, and frequency just means the amount of wave cycles that occur within a certain amount of time.

How does the Fiber Glass work

So for example a piece of paper represents an amount of time, like, fractions of a second. Radio waves from a typical radio in your car are measured in megahertz. So for our example, there are 112 size font. I can fit about one alphabet in this amount of time.

Then 5G can reach tens of gigahertz, a much higher frequency, think like size 18 font. Now I can fit about 39 alphabets onto this page.

difference between wavelenghts

And then light waves and fiber optics, they can have frequencies in the hundreds of terahertz, about size two font here. In that same amount of time, I'm sending way more data, about 1,276 alphabets in our analogy here.

So if we want to speed up our connection, we need to figure out how to encode as much information within the frequency of light as possible.

The reason we're doing research in optical fiber is that more the demand for usage has exploded. That expansion is driving capacity by 60% per year. And it's been that way for 30 years, and has no expectation of stopping.

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Tod Sizer leads a research lab at Nokia Bell Labs, and last March, a researcher from his team set a new company record when they transmitted 1.52 terabits per second of data over 80 kilometers of single-mode fiber. It's about 1.5 million YouTube videos at once. That amount of information is higher than what is available today. We fully expect that in two or three years, we will have it as a product, but for right now, it was just a search experiment. We have to do that in order to meet that 60% per year curve.

What are the Limitations of Glass Fiber?

However, there is a limit to all of this. The limit was established 70 years ago by Claude Shannon, a mathematician. And, as Claude Shannon put it, there is a basic limit to how much information you can communicate over any channel, whether it's a fibre optic connection or a wireless connection. For the past decade, we've been following a curve that leads to Shannon's limit. We've effectively arrived, and we need to think differently now.

Another device is an optical transmitter, which attempts to manipulate light and encode information on it. If you look at the transmitter closely, you'll notice that it has a fibre coming in and one going out. And the fibre that comes in connects to a laser, which modulates the light and alters the output of the modulator, which is normally sent into your transmission fibre, and then you transmit into that fibre link that is buried at the bottom of the ocean. On the other side of the ocean, you'll find an optical receiver that essentially tries to accomplish the opposite.

fiberglass zoomed

Communication between machines, it's like communication between people. What we have is a language system. So at the very beginning, what we do is switch the light on and off, and the receiver detect the light is on, it recognize it as the information bit one. And when the light is off, it's information bit zero. And nowadays, you can do more than switching it on and off. You can switch it half on and half off, and you can make more levels, many, many levels, in between the full on and the full off.

In today's optical fibers, we carry, at the same time, several hundred colors of light, several hundred 1.6 terabytes signals. And wouldn't it be nice if it wasn't just a hundred but maybe a thousand colors you could send? That would help us for four or five years. Another way of thinking about it is to go into fiber that has no glass in the middle. It's called hollow core. It has actually air in the middle that might allow us to go faster as well.

What is the Future of Glass Fiber?

The future of the internet will necessitate kilometres of fibre optic lines and significant infrastructural modifications. The Biden administration has announced an infrastructure plan aimed at providing universal high-speed internet access. In terms of everyday use, it was described as the "new electricity." Although it's unclear how the money will be split, telecom providers are hoping it would help with fibre optic upgrades. Only approximately a third of the country's population has access to fibre, and certain major cities have even less. Before telecom firms can even install fibre optic cable, manufacturers like Corning and Sumitomo will have to make massive amounts of near-perfect fibre optic cable. And as all of these changes happen, it's important to remember one thing.

Also Read: How Amazon Secretly Controls almost half of The Internet!

You could not do anything over the internet if not for glass, even if you take a step back and think about the gorilla glass on your phone. Historically, people think in terms of material ages: the stone age, the bronze age. There's certainly something to be said about the glass age. Glass is important today as it was 5,000 years ago, just in a different enabling way.

Thank you so much for joining us on this journey and we hope you guys enjoyed reading it as much as we enjoyed writing it. Do share this info with your friends as well.

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