The next 30 years

Having marked the start of the year of our 30th anniversary with a look at how much fiber-optic communications has progressed over our three decades of existence, I think we should end the year with a look at how optical communications will evolve over the next three decades.

Having marked the start of the year of our 30th anniversary with a look at how much fiber-optic communications has progressed over our three decades of existence, I think we should end the year with a look at how optical communications will evolve over the next three decades.

It seems clear already that fiber’s main competition for "medium of choice" when it comes to future service provision is wireless. Copper will hold on longer than we currently think it has any right to, because some carriers will postpone fiber to the premises (FTTP) investment for as long as possible and some subscribers will continue to blanche at having a hole drilled into their homes. But even with advances such as DOCSIS 3.1, G.fast, and whatever comes next (G.faster? G.wickedfast?), eventually bandwidth demands will outstrip copper’s (and coax’s) ability to keep pace.

So those carriers who haven’t already invested in FTTP will face a choice of fiber or wireless. Certainly wireless broadband will prove an appealing option. Mobile broadband capacity will continue to increase, and you won’t need to dig up someone’s lawn to enable wireless services. However, I think most in-home bandwidth requirements will continue to demand fiber for the next several decades. Therefore, the future should continue along the lines of what we see today: a big wireline pipe into most homes and buildings, supplemented with high-speed wireless services for on-the-go service requirements. And that wireline pipe will be fiber.

The interesting question decades from now will be who owns that pipe? Here in the U.S., I don’t see fiber connections becoming a utility anytime soon. But elsewhere, as functional separation and open access networks proliferate and over the top (OTT) content consumption becomes widespread, some government that’s investing in infrastructure expansion will see a utility model as logical and a way to earn a return on the taxpayers’ investment. It will happen somewhere - it’s just a question of where and when.

In the enterprise and data center, the same multimedia dynamic will play out. I think fiber will have a harder time becoming ubiquitous in the enterprise; fiber to the desk won’t be as necessary as FTTP in the next three decades. Wireless also will prove adequate for most desktop/tablet/whatever-we-come-up-with applications.

Inside data centers, however, fiber will rule eventually. The bandwidth demands are too high, and photonic advances that shrink cost, footprint, heat dissipation, and power requirements will bring the technology in line with data-center needs. I don’t see wireless as a significant threat to fiber inside the data center for a long, long time.

Consumer products represent a potential new area for optical communications technology expansion. We’re already seeing new fibers developed for USB and similar applications, and fiber HDMI cables have been around for a while.

So fiber should remain an essential communications medium for the next several decades. And the current and future staffs of Lightwave look forward to documenting its progress.

stephenh@pennwell.com

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