Big changes in store for fiber

How is fiber innovation keeping pace with digitization demands? Let's look at how fiber is evolving alongside optical transport architectures.
Night traffic streaks

Data growth is accelerating at a rapid clip in the digital economy as organizations create more knowledge about their markets and business processes. At the same time, data movement is on the rise as well, and this is driving demand for wider pipelines and more effective means of enhancing connectivity.

Fiber is playing a key role in this environment, naturally. Not only does it offer greater bandwidth and throughput than copper, it maintains signal strength over dramatically longer distances, which makes for more streamlined and ultimately less costly communications infrastructure. This is primarily the reason why fiber is expected to nearly double in market value within the decade, topping USD 9.83 billion by 2028, according to Emergen Research.

Change is here

But while it may seem like fiber itself is just a basic commodity – glass stretched into long, thin tendrils – the fact is it is still evolving, capable of producing new forms that can enhance the transmission of digital information in novel new ways.

A case in point is hollow core fiber, which is finally making its way into physical infrastructure after more than 20 years in the lab. Rather than push pulses of light through the actual glass, as in single- or dual-mode fiber, hollow core uses an inner duct of nothing by air, which in turn allows light to travel at the speed of, well, light. Early adopters like BT, are reporting trial deployments of hollow core for 5G RAN infrastructure that show a 50% bump in transmission speed over distances up to 10km. When applied to real-time critical applications like autonomous vehicles or health monitoring, cutting latency in half is a major step forward.

In addition, hollow core features no nonlinearity and extremely low dispersion. When loss can be further reduced to match that of conventional fiber, fiber capacity can be expanded by an order of magnitude.

As data services become more diverse and adaptable to user demands, fiber networks will have to become more flexible and more amenable to change.

Meanwhile, says AT&T’s Andre Fuetsch and Lynn E. Nelson, new optical materials are under development that could augment current indium phosphide and more recent silicon photonics solutions. The company is also preparing for significant gains in optical amplification technology that could scale up transport capacity and provide virtually transparent, lossless fiber. 

Numerous smaller improvements to fiber and related materials are continuing to emerge from design centers as well. Industry veteran Robert Hult highlighted just some of the ways optical technology is still a hot-bed of innovation, with solutions like “bend insensitive” cables that maintain signal strength at extreme curvature, and high-density bundles that pack upwards of 7,000 long-distance fibers inside a 1.25 inch conduit. Packaging options are also on the rise, such as flat-ribbon configurations that simplify wiring and improve airflow even as densities increase on the connector. 

Optical processing

Full network architectures are also undergoing optical redesigns as operators scramble to keep up with the demand for new services. Reconfigurable optical add-drop multiplexers (ROADMs) utilizing photonic bypass are already showing dramatic improvements in network scalability while actually reducing electricity consumption. Because a ROADM device can add, block, pass or redirect multiple wavelengths, it can dramatically improve performance of WDM architectures even while reducing network hardware and complexity.

All of this diversity among fiber and fiber infrastructure solutions will almost certainly lower costs and increase performance and flexibility, but it will also make it more difficult to determine the right solution for emerging applications. As data services become more diverse and more adaptable to user demands, due largely to artificial intelligence and other developments, fiber networks will have to become more flexible and more amenable to change as well.

Data is becoming more fluid, and it will naturally gravitate toward the support structures that bring the highest value to the most users, and this movement will become increasingly automated and autonomous as the decade unfolds. Fiber must keep up with this rate of change, or it won’t be long before its bandwidth and throughput advantages become secondary considerations for new generations of services.

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