This article was updated at 11:46 a.m. PT to correct the bandwidth measurement in the article’s excerpt and to clarify a statement about signal-to-noise ratio.
Researchers at Alcatel-Lucent’s Bell Labs have devised a new way to transmit data super-fast over fiber cables: using “twin waves” of information rather than just one and them bringing them together when they arrive at their destination. The result cut down on signal distortion and led to rates of 400 Gbps across a record distance of 12,800 kilometers, or more than 7,900 miles, according to the research paper, published online Sunday by the journal Nature Photonics.
The pairing of signals in essence cancels out the ups and downs — peaks and troughs, in physics terms — of data. That means the signal-to-noise ratio improves, which lets fiber optic communications travel farther without more gear along the way to boost the signal. That’s a big deal.
The researchers’ demonstration suggests that telcos can apply this approach to delivery work at great distances — in other words, in fiber moving bits under the sea. But the method could also one day speed up connections inside data centers. For that to happen, fiber needs to become popular in data centers first.
Speeds faster than 400 Gbps are not unheard of, but the distance here is the key. Researchers have managed to send data at speeds exceeding 100 terabits per second, although it wasn’t clear how far the speeds could be sustained. Last year Verizon clocked in at 21.7 terabits per second across more than 900 miles of broadband with the help of NEC’s “superchannels.” The concept at work was the combination of a bunch of 100 Gbps fiber for one stream. “Imagine taping together a bunch of cocktail straws in order to suck up more liquid,” my colleague Stacey Higginbotham explained. The Bell Labs researchers have taken a different tack.
Gradually we are moving closer to the 100 gigabit per second age Stacey forecast a couple of years ago. And it could be that the proliferation of gigabit ethernet in more and more cities will prompt the emergence of 100 terabit per second backhaul.
While companies implementing faster speeds will have the effect of making competition more lively, consumers and business customers will benefit too. With advancements like the twin-wave research, real-time, data-rich applications will become feasible more quickly, and the window of what’s possible will open wider.