The laser fix to broadband capacity is almost here

Google thinks it can bolster Internet capacity and connectivity with Project Loon. Microsoft has invested in more under seas cables to keep its cloud-based operations flowing smoothly. There are all sorts of proposals to address the expected broadband capacity crunch. Now here's another one: lasers.

The laser fix to broadband capacity is almost here
Credit: Thinkstock

Americans -- no, make that humans -- are a greedy bunch when it comes to Internet connectivity. We consume bandwidth at ever-increasing rates, which has led to capacity problems. The U.K. recently went into a panic after experts testifying before The Royal Society suggested that the country is running out of capacity and will have to start rationing the Internet by 2023.

And consider this factoid: At our current trajectory, by 2017 an additional 500 million to 900 million people are forecast to get online access for the first time, according to a McKinsey report.

We need a fix and we need one fast.

How lasers can add to capacity

One partial answer might be found in the infrared laser, which in its most humble incarnation fuels an everyday television remote control. Ongoing research at Oklahoma State University suggests that lasers could double the speed and bandwidth of data transfer because they are able to send much larger amounts of data over unused frequencies -- namely, the terahertz (THz) frequency.

The private sector is digging into this issue as well and at least one company is coming to market with a viable offering. Technology Review recently reported that three of the largest U.S. ISPs are experimenting with a technology developed by AOptix, which combines radio and laser links to provide ultra-high bandwidth capacity with carrier-grade availability. The Campbell, Calif.-based company, among other creds, was named a "Cool Vendor" by Gartner this year.

A handful of clients have already shown that the technology could bolster capacity, especially in remote locations where connectivity is spotty at best. Last month WaveTek field-tested AOptix’ technology in Lagos, Nigeria. A seven-kilometer radio-laser link was able to provide capacity from submarine fiber-optic cables to a distribution point in the city’s interior. There has been a successful roll out in Mexico as well.

The technology has a wide range of applications including mobile backhaul, data center connectivity, replacement of legacy microwave radios and fiber back-up links, the company says.

Future uses

Meanwhile, ongoing research by Daniel Grischkowsky, the Bellmon professor of optoelectronics at Oklahoma State, suggests that the full potential of lasers has yet to unfold. Grischkowsky began studying the terahertz frequency, which radiates as a laser, in the early 1990s, according to a recent profile of his life's work in Oklahoma State's student newspaper, The O'Colly.

Along the way, he discovered many potential applications for THz including data transfer. The O'Colly writes:

Grischkowsky’s research assistant, Mahboubeh Manvegar, has worked with him for five years. She specializes in identifying the communication potential with the laser, which may be able to double the speed and bandwidth of data transfer.

“For the next generation of wireless communication, this is a great opportunity to double up the bandwidth and the technology,” she said. “Like, a simple example is the way you use your phone you would have more ability to download more data with a faster speed.”

Currently, gigahertz frequencies are used to transfer data wirelessly. Terahertz could take the communication potential to a new level that’s 20 times faster, she said.

To Mars with Netflix

More ambitious projects using laser technology to facility data transfer are being envisioned. Really, really ambitious projects.

When humankind finally does populate Mars, it will need more than just the bare necessities of life. Entertainment, for example, would be nice. Don Cornwell, director of NASA's Space Communications and Navigation Program, suggested to NBCNews recently that we could be stream Netflix to the planet for entertainment. The concept is doable as two years ago his team established that lasers could transmit data to the moon. In fact, NASA is planning a similar test for Mars in 2020.

The data transmission is expected to be at download speeds of 250 megabits per second and uploads speeds of a few kilobits per second, according to NBCNews, which it went on to point out is not fast enough for Netflix.

But that's okay, because personally I think we should first focus on saving the world from a rationed Internet.

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