The Scientific Evolution of Fibre Optic Communication Technology Over Time

Discover how fibre optic communication has reshaped modern communication and connected the world.

Modern global communication networks, enabling real-time transmission of enormous data volumes across continents, rely fundamentally on fibre optic technology. Hair-thin optical fibers, structured from purified glass or plastic, carry information encoded as pulses of light through a process known as fiber optic communication. They have played a revolutionary role in telecommunications infrastructure over the past few decades [1].

This ScienceShot chronicles the key milestones in the historical progression of fibre optic communication systems. Beginning with early electronic communication networks built upon copper wire telegraphy in the 19th century, it traces the engineering innovations that gradually allowed optical signalling to supplant electronic transmission.

The time needed to email the entire Divine Comedy, from 1985 till today.
The time needed to email the entire Divine Comedy, from 1985 till today.

Early Electronic Communication Networks

The earliest communication systems capable of conveying information over long distances relied on electronic signalling through copper wires rather than optical pulses in glass fibres. The Atlantic Telegraph Company successfully laid the first transatlantic telegraph cable in 1858, stretching around 3000 km to link western Ireland and Newfoundland [2]. This enabled the first direct communication link between Europe and North America.

The opening telegram exchange along this cable demonstrates both the tremendous achievement and severe capacity constraints at the time. Conveying Queen Victoria’s approximately 100-word congratulatory note to US President James Buchanan took over 17 hours, translating to an effective data rate under 100 bits per second [3]. Nonetheless, despite lasting less than a month before failing, this fragile cable successfully pioneered electronic signalling through wires laid across ocean floors.

The cutoff year 1865 saw a resurgence culminating in the successful deployment of a durable transatlantic cable able to carry faster telegraph traffic [4]. But data rates remained extremely limited, only in the few hundreds of bits per second range. Over the next century, capacity gradually enhanced through improvements in cable technology, repeaters to strengthen signals, and networking protocols [1].

But the earliest experiments with optical fiber communication itself originated surprisingly early in the mid-19th century, with the proposal of an optical telegraph system patented in Britain [5]. It would however take over a hundred years before this scientifically sound but commercially impractical concept could be successfully technologically implemented.

The Digital Fiber Optic Turning Point

By the mid-20th century, electronic communication systems relied extensively on analog telephone networks using high bandwidth coaxial cables and microwave radio links to carry voice calls [1]. Turning global networks all-digital perhaps marks the most crucial milestone enabling revolutionary fiber optic advancement.

The late 20th century breakthrough of digital transmission systems underpins their seamless compatibility with fiber optic infrastructure being contemporaneously developed [6]. The world’s first modern optical fiber able to carry telephone calls using a digital system titled T1 was created by Corning Glass in 1970 [7].

But the installation of the first truly digital communication network across a national territory was pioneered in West Germany through the early to mid-1980s [8]. Termed Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN), it served both domestic and commercial needs ranging from telephone calls to fax to telex networks. By digitalizing the entire network, ISDN represented a transition both technically and organizationally from state-owned monopoly operators towards an open standards framework promoting competition and interconnectivity [9]. At 56 kbps, ISDN’s speeds were now expressed in tens of kilobits unlike previous three digit bitrates.

The success of national ISDN networks set the stage for their interconnection across borders. By 1988, European countries were implementing ISDN links enabling unified international digital communication [9]. Extensive digitization also supported transitioning from microwave to optical fiber backbones on many long haul routes [10]. With national regulatory bodies also stressing infrastructure modernization [11], the 1990s opened an era marking breakdown of the monopoly model globally [12].

These fundamental digital transitions, both within countries and now across borders, primed existing networks for the fiber optic revolution in the coming decades. They would also lay foundations towards gradual privatization supporting intense investment in next-generation infrastructure [13].

The Fiber Optic Transformation

As outlined earlier, the theoretical notion of utilizing light pulses in glass fibres to carry communication signals dates back over a century and a half. But only through the 1960s and 70s did mature fiber materials and affordable semiconductor lasers for generating optical signals become available. These are integral components underlying modern fibre optic communication systems [1].

The earliest fibers faced major challenges like high loss and attenuation over distances that greatly limited range [14]. But rapid engineering breakthroughs overcame such hurdles within less than a decade. Experiments successfully raised thresholds fromtens of meters initially up to over 50 kilometers [15]. These proofs of concept propelled optimism that optical fibers could indeed become core components in long-haul communication networks spanning hundreds or thousands of kilometers [1].

By the late 1980s, national networking backbones within pioneering countries like France and Spain had deployed fiber optic links offering hundreds of megabits per second throughput [10]. But cables traversing entire oceans still utilized traditional electronic systems. Optical amplification advances through the 1990s gradually supported transitioning these submarine communication links spanning thousands of kilometres also towards fibre systems [1].

The present era commencing in the 2000s marks the extensive replacement of electronic networks using copper wires and microwave beams with fiber infrastructure offering massively enlarged capacity. Studies indicate fibre constitutes over 99% of all intercontinental and transoceanic transmission network elements [16]. The economics underlying this complete reversal towards optical fibre systems merits deeper examination.

Economics Driving Infrastructure Investment

From early intercontinental telegraph cables to microwave radio links, and later satellites, each generation of communication infrastructure has necessitated intensive capital investment often from public-private partnerships [17]. Maintaining expected returns on such massive funding requires adequately future-proofing capacity limits each time.

fibre optic communication
Map (1901) of the transoceanic and transcontinental network.

The surge in global information flows towards the end of the 20th century, both within countries and worldwide, generated pressure to massively scale up capacity economies of scale [18]. Simultaneously, exponential advances in fibre optic technology have repeatedly broken limits in offering unprecedented throughputs at competitive costs for undersea installations [19]. Although a complicated infrastructure segment, analysts have long identified technology advances as pivotal in enabling each major phase of growth [17].

Improvements in fiber optic network technology itself does not automatically however guarantee financial success. Economic studies indicate global information flows grew more than 20 times from 1986 to 2006 [20]. But bandwidth supply outpaced demand, with lit capacity exceeding traffic nearly tenfold by 2002 [20]. In the aftermath of the telecom crash of the early 2000s, infrastructure builders have had to be more tactical in deploying new networks timed closer to anticipated growth in demand [21].

Recent large investments like the Hibernia cable between London and New York, promising a 5-millisecond latency edge, reveal similar astute economic calculus [22]. In the field of automated high-frequency stock trading, even such small incremental speed advantages can unlock enormous financial returns [23].

The selected case studies and metrics above aim to illustrate how technical capabilities as well as projected market demand and end-use environment together drive generations of advances throughout this history of fibre optic communication networks spanning almost two centuries.

Conclusion

In conclusion, this analysis has chronicled the progression spanning early electronic communication systems in the 19th century towards the global fibre optic networks circumscribing the planet today. Quantitative data has illustrated both steadily improving transmission speeds alongside exponentially growing information traffic volumes, especially accelerating through the late 20th century.

The digital transition support migration towards fibre optics from legacy systems has been highlighted as an important turning point. Privatization and competitive forces have also been noted as pivotal across this period marked by upheaval in formerly state-dominated national telecom segments. Samples have shown how both engineering feats and commercial interests continue propelling investment powering advances on this technology frontier.

With broadband penetration and economic reliance on instant high-capacity global networks only intensifying each year, the importance of analyze the scientific and economic foundation underpinning this infrastructure cannot be overstated. This historical study has aimed to provide informative perspective and data-driven insights across almost two centuries of breakthroughs ultimately connecting today’s world.

References

[1] Senior, John M. (2009). Optical fiber communications: principles and practice. Pearson Education.

[2] Carter, L., Burnett, S., Drew, S., Marle, G., Hagadorn, L., Bartlett-McNeil, D., and Irvine, N. (2009). Submarine cables and

Stefano Meroli
Stefano Meroli

CERN scientist, history lover.
PhD in Nuclear Physics and counting.

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