By Leaps and Terabits [Fribble] May 2, 2000

Fribble By Leaps and Terabits

By John R. Finger
May 2, 2000


Remember that word.

Terabit means one trillion bits to you and me, and is roughly equal to all of the daily traffic on the Internet for the entire world. If the guys in the knee-length white lab coats at the Bell Labs start pushing the envelope on the Web the way they have with the research, this broadband stuff will take on a whole new meaning.

Setting a new record, researchers at Lucent's Bell Labs have, for the first time, managed to push an astonishing 3.28 terabits per second of data over a long stretch of fiber-optic cable. This means that this Lucent fiber could transmit three times the daily global Internet traffic every second.

That is one second.

To make it even more astonishing, some experts are saying this breakthrough is just the beginning. In a matter of years, the fiber-optic cable being laid today -- by companies such as America's Fiber Network that will service the Pennsylvania towns of Lancaster, Harrisburg, Carlisle, and York -- could be transmitting data at the rate of tens of thousands of terabits per second.

At these speeds, the entire written works of mankind -- including prehistoric cave writings -- could be beamed across the globe at the speed of light in just a second or two.

The terabit uses optical fiber, which is made from silica fiber stretched thinner than human hair. Lasers operating in the near-infrared range of the light spectrum beam information across it. More than 215 million kilometers -- that's roughly 133 million miles -- of optical fiber have been laid across the globe, more than enough to stretch to the moon and back 280 times, according to the Bell Labs.

These astonishing advances in bandwidth will largely be driven by two factors, according to David Nagel from AT&T Labs: 1) the speed of lasers used to encode the data, and 2) the number of lasers operating at different wavelengths that can be carried by a single fiber. Nagel said that scientists are developing terabit lasers, which would be capable of handling all of AT&T's daily telephone traffic -- more than 300 million calls -- plus all the data traffic, all on a single laser. Meanwhile, the number of wavelengths a single fiber can simultaneously carry is doubling every year. At the moment, optical networks carry 40 wavelengths per fiber, Nagel said. Eighty-wavelength systems are already available, and 160-wavelength systems will be introduced to the public next year.

All of this is happening, of course, because of the demand (or marketing) of the need for broadband Internet access. AT&T is the largest cable owner and operator in the United States and would have the rights to granting cable modem access to more cable subscribers than any company in the world.

If AT&T can offer the terabit to its customers soon, it will revolutionize the broadband Internet access revolution. It could make DSL broadband access look like 8-Track cassettes.

In April, Suburban Cable will offer broadband Internet access in Lancaster city and township. This will make it the area's second major cable company to stake a claim in the emerging broadband market. But will the company have enough resources to battle the big cable companies?

Probably, says Suburban cable spokesman Frank Lynch, who said the cable company's offering in April has already attracted a lot subscribers.

About 95% of Internet users have dial-up access offered by ISPs like AOL and EarthLink, but the Forrester Research Group predicts that by 2002, cable modems and broadband access will account for 80% of the Internet market.

Just remember that little word.


You can say it quickly.