Chances are you’re vaguely aware of the internet. You may also be aware of words like ‘dial-up’, ‘broadband’ and ‘DSL’ which are usually thrown about by computer technicians, movie hackers and computer salesmen. Now there’s a new term in the computing vocabulary: ‘fibre optics’.
So what exactly are fibre optics, and more importantly, why should you care? Fibre optics are essentially thin glass cables that carry information in the form of light over long distances. They‘re the Ferraris of the digital world and currently the fastest method of transferring digital information.
Using light for communication isn’t a new idea. The semaphore line, invented in 1792, used light signals at the top of a tower which could then be seen by another tower which sent the signal to subsequent towers. Just picture the scene in Lord of the Rings where they light the flaming beacons along the mountains and you’ll get the basic idea.
Next up was the electric telegraph in 1832. As the name suggests, it used electricity to send information down metal cables and was the first system to allow messages to be sent all around the world.
After that, things didn’t really evolve at a great pace. The world seemed content with information carried by electrical cables. Then, in 1966, the world’s first fibre optic cable was made and became commercially available a while later in the early 2000s. Since then, they’ve become increasingly popular with most internet providers. You’ve probably noticed the leaflets piling up on your doormat advertising ‘super-fast fibre optic broadband’.
However, any large scale improvement to the internet networks in the developed world is slow because of the old metal cables that are quite literally entrenched in those countries. The largest fibre optic projects aren’t focused on replacing these old cables in developed countries, it’s much easier to lay shiny new ones in the developing world.
Despite slow speeds and notoriously high prices, there is huge demand for internet access in Africa. There are currently 240 million Internet users across the African continent, with this number increasing by seven times the global average between 2000 and 2012. Africa (excluding Eritrea and Western Sahara) is linked to Europe, America and Asia by 16 cables running under the world’s oceans.
As of 2014, a significant number of projects to lay fibre optic cables in the developing world have been completed, with many more on the way. One such project is Google’s ‘Project Link’, which aims to provide a fibre optic network for Uganda’s capital city, Kampala. A cynic may say Google’s targeting of emerging countries is a shameless drive to increase the number of people using their products. However access to the internet is a great enabler and provides many benefits such as education, new opportunities and business links. African countries have the potential to skip the developed world’s Stone Age copper cables and move straight onto fibre optics, which could grant them the highest internet speeds in the world.
These days we expect everything to work instantaneously and feel outraged when webpages take more than a few seconds to load. Fibre optics provide a way for the internet to continue to work at the light-like speeds we’ve come to expect. Although it’s virtually impossible to predict major technological advances before they happen, it’s hard to see how information travelling at the speed of light could be improved.
Having endured painfully slow, screeching dial-up connections, we know there will definitely be an improvement in the way we access the internet in the future. Whatever form this may take, you can be sure fibre optics will be involved.