This practically ancient Internet technology supports speeds 1,000 times the national average

Researchers at Alcatel-Lucent's Bell Labs have developed a way to send Internet traffic over phone lines at speeds reaching 10 Gbps — that's 1,000 times faster than what the average American household currently gets.

The new technology even beats fiber optic speeds at short distances, the company said Wednesday, adding that the 10 Gbps benchmark represents a new world record. By comparison, a high-definition Netflix stream requires around 5 Mbps of bandwidth, or five-hundredths of one percent of what Bell Labs's technology is theoretically capable of.

It's hard to understate how big a breakthrough this is. Bell Labs is using copper wire technology — the same stuff that once upon a time drove dial-up and now supports DSL in addition to your regular telephone calls. This isn't your parents' DSL, however. Bell Labs' invention, called XG-FAST, opens up new possibilities for getting gigabit speeds (or more) to consumers. You could marry XG-FAST with fiber, for instance, so that you don't actually have to spend gobs of money installing fiber directly to people's homes. Or perhaps with future improvements, DSL might return as a viable alternative to cable or fiber — even though currently DSL may account for only one-third of the U.S. fixed broadband market. It's a particularly momentous development for Europe, where DSL is more common than other types of Internet.

For now, the 10 Gbps rate is only achievable over 30 meters and requires Alcatel-Lucent to bond two pairs of typical copper lines together. Over distances of 70 meters, XG-FAST uses a single pair of copper wires. At those ranges, speeds "drop" to 1 Gbps — which is still crazy fast, and on par with fiber. XG-Fast is based off of another emerging DSL standard known as G.Fast.

Alcatel-Lucent claims that this will allow Internet providers to bring gigabit speeds to consumers sooner than they otherwise might. In places where laying fiber is prohibitively expensive or unprofitable, traditional copper wiring could fill the gap.

"By pushing broadband technology to its limits, operators can determine how they could deliver gigabit services over their existing networks," said Marcus Weldon, president of Bell Labs. (Bell Labs was famous for helping AT&T invent the transistor and a number of other communications technologies; the R&D department was spun off in the years following the AT&T breakup.)

Of course, even when this technology gets rolled out in 2015, your actual speeds will be determined by how fast your own Internet subscription is (and whether your provider is taking advantage of XG-FAST). Even though XG-FAST may support up to 10 Gbps theoretically, if you're buying a 15 Mbps connection from your ISP, that's what you'll continue to get. What XG-FAST just means is that a technology many people said was on the decline may now have a second lease on life.

 

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Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecom, broadband and digital politics. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.
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Brian Fung · July 10