Although fast wireless technologies such as: Wi-Fi 6E and 5G dominate the news headlines, analog and optical cables are still the backbone of the internet, and for good reason. Researchers in Japan just released a new record for fiber optic data transmission with a technique that is compatible with existing cable infrastructuremeaning a real-world implementation is very possible, and not just limited to a lab environment.
Researchers of Japanese National Institute of Information and Communication Technology (NICT) successfully sent data through a custom multi-core fiber optic cable at a speed of 1.02 petabits per second over a distance of 51.7 km. That’s equivalent to transmitting 127,500 GB of data per second, which the researchers say is also enough capacity for more than “10 million channels of 8K broadcasts per second.” As New Atlas points out, that’s also 100,000 times faster than the promised next-generation high-speed gigabit connections that provide internet to home users.
In December 2020, NICT actually made the first successful transfer of data at 1 petabit per second over a standard diameter fiber optic cable, and while an increase in speed to 1.02 petabits per second just a year and a half later is certainly an impressive feat, what makes this time so exciting is the technology used to break the record.
In 2020, the NICT researchers sent the data through a single-core fiber optic cable, but used a multimode technique in which multiple signals were mixed together during transmission. In all, 15 “modes” were sent together through the fiber, and while the speed performance was impressive, the multi-mode technique requires special hardware to decipher the signals and extract useful data, enabling the development and implementation of new integrated circuits across the board. an entire network and expensive upgrades, making it harder to sell to Internet service providers despite huge bandwidth gains.
This time, the researchers did away with the mixed-signal, multi-mode approach and instead reduced transmission to just four “modes,” each sending down one of four cores in a custom standard diameter fiber optic cable. Imagine a plastic straw with four thinner straws inside, each containing a different flavor of soda: a gross simplification of what the researchers have created. But the multi-core cable wasn’t the only innovation that enabled this record-setting data transfer, it also relied on some highly technical optical amplification systems and signal modulation approaches, as the NICT researchers describe:
In this experiment, by broadening the Raman amplification bandwidth to the full S-band and using custom thulium-doped fiber amplifiers (TDFAs) for S-band and extended L-band erbium-doped fiber amplifiers (EDFAs), we were able to achieve a record 20 THz optical spectrum. with a total of 801 x 25 GHz staggered wavelength channels, each with dual-polarization-256 QAM modulation for high spectral density in all wavelength bands.
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The most important part is that this second breakthrough relies on hardware and techniques that are completely compatible with conventional transceiver hardware that is already in place across the country. New fiber optic cabling will need to be installed, but since the researchers limited the size of their multi-core cable to standard dimensions, it would be completely compatible with existing infrastructure, greatly reducing upgrade costs. As 5G becomes more widespread, and with 6G just around the corner, the country’s demand for data is going to continue to increase by leaps and bounds, but an innovation like this promises to give internet providers a sizeable head start for at least a few years.
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