The Future of Network Speeds: Fiber Optics and Powerlines

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It’s a wired world we live in, and getting more so. This article provides an overview of future trends with wired networks, from increasing the availability of broadband-quality networks to more fully taking advantage of current technologies, such as wired connections over power lines.

Broadband Penetration & Proliferation

It may be difficult for many people to believe, but yes, dial up is still out there, and still widely used. Broadband Internet is simply not available in vast tracks of land, leaving either snail-slow dial-up as the only available wired network—or no network at all.

Broadband penetration, the extent to which broadband speeds are available to the entirety of the population, is being treated as a key economic indicator. Think about it: without broadband Internet, an area will be at a serious economic disadvantage, unable to buy and sell on the global market, or interact with the rest of the world in real time. Realizing this, communities without broadband access are putting increasing pressure on their providers to, well, provide. As a result, wired networks are beginning to seep into less populated areas, usually preferred over competing wireless alternatives due to their better reliability and speed.

In addition to increased availability, new technology for wired connections is also becoming commercially viable at an impressive rate—and with incredible diversity:

Fiber Optics

Older wired networks, such as most DSL and cable modems, tend to use copper or other metal wires to transmit the signal. This isn’t particularly cost effective for running wired connections for long distances, limiting the extent to which many DSL and cable companies will run their wired networks.

Along comes fiber optics, a relatively cheap and fast way to supply Internet via a wired connection. Many DSL and cable companies are beginning to at least hybridize their networks, slowly replacing their old copper wires with fiber optics. This is generically known as FTTx, fiber to the x. The “x” can be replaced by virtually anything, the letter used to designate where precisely the old wire networks meet the new fiber optic cables. FTTN, for instance, stands for Fiber to the Node/Neighborhood, and FTTH for Fiber to the Home.

Imagine it: all your data, your telephone, television, Internet, anything and everything done over the same superfast, superefficient line. Fiber optics have already made huge headway on the market, so expect to see only more of it in coming years. Check out this article on fiber optic technology within Europe.

BPL: Broadband Over Powerlines

Those old DSL and cable networks ran Internet through copper or other metal wires—so why not the metal wire of a power line? Anywhere where someone might be wanting Internet access, there will be a corresponding power grid to supply the local populace. No new wires needed, no new infrastructure, just taking advantage of the old. This is known as BPL, Broadband over Powerline.

However, as promising as an idea as it might sound, there are a few problems with BPL connections, if ones that are all perfectly possible to fix.

The first, and most pressing, is the problem of the transformers. The transformer will block any data transmission, requiring a repeater to be placed on the transformer to continue the transmission. This is more of a problem in power grids like that of the United States, where there is typically one transformer per house, translating into an extremely expensive overhaul. In more European style power grids, typically a single transformer powers ten, twenty, a hundred houses, making it far more cost effective to install the transformer.

Another problem is with the frequencies that must be used in BPL. The frequencies that are optimum for transmitting data, that is, the frequencies that suffer the least interference in such a noisy environment, happen to be the ones that are licensed for both amateur radio and international. You can imagine some of the outcry. Power lines are unshielded, meaning that unwanted signals can be picked up and interfere with each other. Shielding the powerlines is the obvious solution, though that would require a massive, and very expensive, overhaul of the current power grid.

This technology also has potential to be used to connect individual computers on a home network, not just to the greater portion of the Internet. Imagine the convenience without having dedicated cords or a dodgy wireless signal to deal with. Anything and everything on a single network, connected via the same outlet that powers them.

To many, BPL has enough advantages over old DSL and cable wired connections that they are beginning to replace them. The buzz is out, BPL standards have been set, and the technology is already beginning to be implemented in fits and starts. Be ready to start seeing this technology widely available for your wired networks in the near future.

This post is part of the series: The Future of Networking

Taking a look into the future of Wired and Wireless Networking, and what we might be able to achieve with advancements in communications technology.

  1. The Future of Wireless Networks
  2. The Future of Wired Networks