How a laser beam could quadruple the speed of the Internet

We've heard a lot about how Netflix wants to improve download speeds for viewers by partnering with Comcast and other Internet providers. The central issue is about how to carry large video streams efficiently from one part of the Internet to another. But someday, the technology behind that infrastructure could make those pipes much, much bigger, helping to alleviate those concerns.

Researchers from the California Institute of Technology say they've come up with a new kind of laser that's capable of quadrupling the bandwidth on today's fastest fiber optic networks. These networks make up what's known as the Internet "backbone," the behind-the-scenes network that delivers content to ISPs like Verizon — who in turn make that content available to you.

What do lasers have to do with the Internet? In today's most advanced networks, which rely on fiber optic technology, data is transmitted as light rather than electrical signals. On traditional copper-wire networks, those signals don't travel as fast and tend to degrade more easily over long distances. So light offers an inherent advantage.

Today's best backbone technology is capable of staggering bandwidth — in some cases up to 400 Gbps. For perspective, that's more than 40,000 times the speed of the average American's home connection. (Take that comparison with a grain of salt: Most Americans will never need the capacity of a backbone connection. Even the fastest consumer plans top out at 1 Gbps these days.)

But the new laser technology, developed in part by National Medal of Science-winner Amnon Yariv, promises to quadruple bandwidth in the existing Internet backbone, if not more.

"Our first run lasers, fabricated at Caltech, are capable of of a 4x increase in the number of bytes-per-second carried by each channel," Yariv, whose research was published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said in an e-mail. "This number will increase with our continuing work, but even at this level, the economic advantages are very big."

The more efficient laser is a marked improvement over existing ones in that it operates closer to a single frequency than any other yet created. The purity of the beam allows it to carry more data.

Yariv compares the laser to a highway. The highway has a set number of lanes, and carries a certain number of trucks every day. With the Caltech upgrade, the trucks will now be able to carry four times the tonnage on the same highway.

"A single channel carrying today, say, 40 Gbps, will go to 160 Gbps," said Yariv. Applied to top-of-the-line networks, that might mean eventual backbone speeds of 1,600 Gbps or more. (Just for fun, that's 164,000 times faster than the 10 Mbps connection serving the average American home today.)

The discovery isn't likely to benefit individual Internet users like you and me in a huge way — at least, not directly. Internet subscribers are limited largely by the plan they've purchased from their ISPs. If you're paying for a 15 Mbps connection, for instance, you aren't suddenly going to be upgraded to a 60 Mbps plan.

Still, dramatically expanding the rate at which data can be routed through the Internet to your ISP could have downstream implications for companies like Netflix. It'll also make a big difference as our homes become smarter, more connected and more automated, and as phone companies transition away from copper networks to carrying calls over fiber optic networks, as well.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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