Bandwidth player in the data game

Technology : The capacity of a fiber-optic cable to handle communications traffic will play a key role in the future of moving information.

March 09, 2000|By Mark Ribbing | Mark Ribbing,SUN STAFF

This week, in the huge, windowless rooms of the Baltimore Convention Center, thousands of men and women from all over the world are scurrying among brightly colored booths and huddling in seminars, swapping the secrets and strategies of an industry that has found a way to send millions of pages of information around the world in a hummingbird's heartbeat.

But hanging over the Optical Fiber Communication Conference is a simple question: So what?

So what if fiber-optic engineers are finding ever-faster ways to send Internet messages and telephone calls in packets of light that race down glass wires the width of a human hair? So what if those wires can carry data at a speed of 40 billion bits per second where two years ago they were chugging along at 1 billion bits per second? What will all of this mean to normal consumers and businesses?

At the most basic level, say industry experts, it will mean reductions in the cost of a phone call and in the size of Internet-ready computers. The key issue is bandwidth, or the capacity of a wire to handle communications traffic. By handling more and more bandwidth -- and 40 billion bits of data is equivalent to 5 billion numerals or letters -- fiber-optic lines are making communications technology cheaper, more powerful and more mobile.

For example, development of a market-ready video telephone, a staple of futurists' fantasies for decades, has been held back by faulty connections and jerky visual images. As bandwidth grows, wires can more easily carry the video and audio signals such a call would require.

Higher bandwidth also will mean higher power for small electronic devices. "The Internet will extend into every space," said David Hardwick, chairman of an optical-communications trade group.

To illustrate the principle, Hardwick took out his small mobile telephone. "Why can't I have the Internet here?" he asked, pointing to the small, monochromatic display screen just above the phone's keypad. "Why can't I have it in color? With this technology, you'll be able to."

Asked when such Internet miniterminals would be possible, Hardwick replied, "I don't know. But I would think it would be in years rather than in tens of years."

The future of fiber was a central topic Tuesday at the plenary session, where corporate gurus held forth in front of a crowd of graying hippies, pinstriped junior executives and jet-lagged Japanese.

George Gilder, a high-tech economist and a speechwriter for President Richard M. Nixon, said fiber communications will revamp the way goods are marketed and consumed.

"What these technologies do is save the customer's time, and business has long been devoted to wasting customers' time," said Gilder, his craggy Yankee face and broad gestures beamed out to the standing room-only crowd on two large screens at either side of the podium. "You lock him up in phone-mail jail and have him listen to `Rhapsody In Blue.' You sit him down on a couch -- showing advertising he doesn't want to see for products he doesn't want to buy. That's television, and it's all about wasting one's time."

On the exhibit floor yesterday, a full-color satellite image of North America was stretched out over three wide screens. As a man moved his computer mouse over the map and zoomed in, the picture instantly become stunningly detailed, showing mountains and lakes and coastlines in sharp relief.

Over certain urban areas, including Washington and Los Angeles, the image swooped down to take in the detailed grid of roads and buildings, picking out details as small as individual cars, the shadows of large objects, the word "REDSKINS" in the end zones of FedEx Field. The effect was dizzying and strangely beautiful, like sky-diving out of the space shuttle.

The map is satellite and aerial data gathered and transmitted by a consortium of federal agencies and corporations, with potential uses ranging from geology to espionage. It's also a display of power; the exhibition was hogging 4.5 billion bits per second.

William T. Anderson, director of optical networking research for Telcordia Technologies Inc. of Red Bank, N.J., one of the companies in the project, looked on proudly as spectators flocked to the display. With a tone of triumph, he said, "The basic question that we're answering here is, `What could you do with all this bandwidth?'"

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