Fiber Optics: Let There Be Light

Imagine a home with cheerful splashes of natural sunlight in every room at once — even the interior ones — all day long. Now imagine a world in which all citizens have access to the very best medical care, regardless of where they live. These are just two of many new applications of fiber optics technology, which is beginning to touch consumers’ lives in more and more ways.

Fiber optic technology dates back several decades, but for many years it was comparatively too expensive for all but long-distance applications, where its capabilities have long outshone those of traditional cable wiring.

“Fiber optics represent the backbone of every developed country around the world,” Stan Lumish, CTO of JDS Uniphase, told TechNewsWorld. “Across the United States, across oceans, through Europe and Asia, telecommunications backbones everywhere are based on fiber optics systems.”

Today, however, lower costs and higher production volumes mean that fiber optics can now make sense in areas where it didn’t before, including relatively short distances. Meanwhile, fiber optic capacities have exploded, so that whereas it was once just one wavelength of light traveling through the fiber, today it is more like 160 wavelengths traveling at once.


“It’s analogous to the FM band on your radio, but instead of frequencies across the dial, it would be wavelengths,” Lumish explained. “Of course, on a single wavelength of light you could fit all the FM stations — the capacity is just tremendous.”

AT&T and Verizon both recently brought fiber optics to the limelight in the U.S. with their U-verse and FiOS systems, respectively, which are alternatives to traditional systems for providing TV and Internet service.

As with those of some cable companies, AT&T’s system brings fiber to central nodes, while copper cabling delivers the service into each consumer home. Verizon, on the other hand, is bringing fiber all the way into each home, much like what’s already available in Japan.

A Gradual Shift

The result of these new technologies is higher bandwidth and more options for consumers. Will they replace current options such as cable or DSL? Not in the next decade, Lumish said: “Things don’t move that fast.” But in 50 years? It may be possible.

“I suspect the same people who provide cable and DSL will gradually shift their infrastructure,” added Jay Sharping, professor of physics at the University of California, Merced.

Advances in fiber such as wave-guide and tunable devices, meanwhile, will make telecommunications infrastructures simpler to manage, so that providers can more flexibly accommodate consumers’ increasing bandwidth needs, Lumish said.

It may not mean any new “thing” for consumers to buy, but it will mean better, faster service, Sharping said.

The Lights Are On

Fiber optics could also shed light, so to speak, on household lighting, Sharping predicts. Because optical fibers can be used as a conduit for light, they provide a new way to get sunlight into a place that wouldn’t otherwise have it — such as a dark, interior room.

So, by hooking up some almost-invisible optical fibers to an outside light source, they could bring natural, outside light to a space that needs it. “I think people will find that interesting, at least in niche areas,” Sharping said.

Fiber-optic light bulbs have already been developed, and may be an additional way to tap into fiber optics for household lighting.

A New Bling, Bling

Textiles are another area fiber optics could change, Sharping said. In this context, though, the fiber is not so much a conduit of light as it is a way of making fabric more reflective. In that way, it can serve many safety applications requiring reflective gear as well as creating a new “bling, bling” in the fashion world, Sharping said.

In cars, fiber optics is replacing copper as a lighter alternative for entertainment systems, CD players, back-seat controls, global positioning systems, and air-conditioning and climate controls, added Richard Mack, director of research for KMI Research, CRU Group. Such technologies use plastic rather than glass fibers, he noted, but are already being used by companies such as BMW and Mercedes.

Industrial Strength

In industry, fiber optic lasers are full of promise for a variety of applications. “Fiber lasers are really coming into their own,” Sharping said. “They have some very nice properties” such as the ability to deliver very high power, lending them to applications in industrial areas like welding, he pointed out.

In the research world, fiber is enabling the creation of clocks that are more accurate than ever before, Sharping added. By combining a laser with an optical fiber, these clocks allow scientists to measure time more accurately than they’ve been able to previously, enabling better, more precise scientific experiments, he concluded.

In photonic power applications, meanwhile, fiber optics are enabling the transfer of power using only light. With an optical receiver that can convert light into electrical power, fiber optic systems are immune to electrical interference and so can operate reliably even in an environment with significant interference, Lumish indicated.

Potential applications include monitoring systems in power plants as well as MRI, he added.

Community Service

People who live in rural areas often pay a price when it comes to healthcare service, even if it’s only because of their own proximity to the nearest healthcare provider. However, with new, “telehealth” applications, that could change.

“As the population ages, we need to be able to reach people where they are,” Tom West, president and CEO for National LambdaRail, told TechNewsWorld. By connecting remote healthcare providers with those in major cities via high-bandwidth connections, fiber optics promises to bring “expert, diagnostic and decision services from qualified people at a remote distance in a timely fashion.”

The Federal Communications Commission has announced a pilot program in telehealth, and proposals will soon be collected, said West.

Emergency communications are another area expected to benefit from fiber optics, he added. “If we had a comprehensive infrastructure like we do for phone service, we’d be in a better position to integrate fire, police, emergency health, and homeland security issues,” West suggested.

Who’s in Charge?

That raises a key issue that may determine the direction fiber optic technologies take in the coming years: ownership. AT&T and Verizon have shown they are all too keen to develop their own, proprietary networks, but others are not so sure this kind of infrastructure should be under private control.

“I believe we need to be able to do this in such a way that no specific industry owns it,” West stated. “It has to be community-owned. The challenge is opening it up and still getting it done. What we have to do is make bandwidth free.”

It’s a slow process, West cautioned. “It will be several years before this arrives in a significant way for consumers,” he said. “It’s a push and pull. The consumer pulls a bit, but they don’t have enough of the big picture. Innovative people come and push, and consumers say, ‘Aha! I didn’t know I needed that.'”

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