How much is enough?

May 1, 1997

How much is enough?

Stephen M. Hardy

Editor in Chief

[email protected]

One of the responsibilities of being a Lightwave editor is to visit companies and trade shows in hopes of uncovering the harbingers of tomorrow`s trends, just so readers like you don`t have to. (No need to thank me--I`m just doing my job.) For example, price promises to be a major skirmishing point as cable-TV firms battle for their lives against direct satellite services. Will these cable companies therefore expect their fiber suppliers to slash the price of components? If so, can fiber-optic component companies make up in volume what they will surely lose in per-unit margin? (For the curious, the official answer seems to be--well--check with me later.)

Of course, some trends are so well-established that even a newbie such as yours truly can recognize them easily. And then there are the trends that have progressed so far beyond "established" that they have attained a stature akin to dogma. By far the best current example of such a trend is (all together now): "Users` ever-increasing demand for bandwidth has driven service providers to employ more fiber in their networks."

Fiber cable, component, and systems companies have embraced this concept as if it were the Eleventh Commandment. Market research firms predict future fiber sales in the billions, while it seems you can`t discuss a fiber company`s marketing strategy without being shown a graphic on which the bandwidth demand curve approaches vertical. And if you believe another popular graphic, the one that shows "typical bandwidth requirement estimates versus actual demand," even these prognostications will fall short of the mark. Can a demand curve exceed vertical?

With this gleaming pot of leprechaun`s gold in view, fiber firms have tasked their R&D departments to develop the rainbows they must follow to reach it. Four-wavelength multiplexing begets 16 wavelengths, then 48, all in the name of delivering on fiber`s promise of "virtually unlimited bandwidth" (another very popular phrase). As in the movie Field of Dreams, the prevailing philosophy appears to be: "Build It and They Will Come."

Now, this philosophy may very well prove correct. For the sake of the fiber industry (not to mention the uninterrupted employment of the journalists who cover it), I hope users continue to consume bandwidth like ice cream at a children`s birthday party. But at the same time I wonder: Just what are users going to do with all this bandwidth, anyway?

Fortunately for folks like me, researchers are hard at work while you`re reading this, coming up with new products and services that promise to suck down bandwidth like lemonade in a heat wave. For example, I`ve twice had the pleasure of listening to Peter Cochrane, head of applied research and technologies at BT Networks and Systems, speak on future applications for fiber and related technologies. The Information Age is over, according to Cochrane; we have now entered the Age of Experience. Viewing screens of information will no longer satisfy the user, he says. People will want to experience what`s on the other side of the bandwidth pipeline the same way they can experience the environment in which they sit (or stand or run, as terminals become smaller and more portable). Taking the five senses together, the brain processes billions of data bits routinely. Providing "the experience" of something halfway across the globe will require the transmission of equally large amounts of data quickly and efficiently.

In such a scenario, "unlimited bandwidth" barely seems adequate. But certainly fiber appears well-positioned to service this potential need, provided the foreseeable interface hurdles can be surmounted. Cochrane envisions future fiber networks will contain switching capability in the fiber itself, which will lower cost and complexity while increasing efficiency.

In the nearer term, optical networks can transmit more than facts, figures, and Web pages--they can transmit expertise. Cochrane reports on an project whereby a doctor in one location provided instruction and supervision to a team of surgeons in another hospital while they performed reconstructive knee surgery. The supervising doctor witnessed the procedure while communicating directly to the attending surgeons in real time. (A friendly word of warning: To prove the efficacy of this use of network bandwidth, Mr. Cochrane likes his audience to see almost as much detail of the surgery as the supervising physician did. Do go see Cochrane speak--just don`t make lunch plans for immediately before or after his presentation.)

Even if esoteric visions of the Age of Experience prove more fancy than fact, increased demand for bandwidth should continue in the foreseeable future. Naturally, this bodes well for fiber. To paraphrase a snack food commercial, the fiber community has a message for bandwidth-hungry users: "Eat all you want; we`ll make more." q

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