Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Fiber optic 101

John O'Brien's 1993 Mac Color Classic

So this is what it's like behind the scenes.

Today's Fresh Water features a story I wrote about Cleveland's digital renaissance, the centerpiece of which is a 100-gigabit per second (gbps) information superhighway coming to our Health-Tech Corridor by the end of the year. The article does not focus on that, but instead on a handful of grants that will enable some smaller fiber optic projects. My interviewee for the piece was Brett Lindsey, an executive with OneCommunity, the organization that's led the charge behind 2,400 miles of fiber optic cable that's already been installed within 24 northeast Ohio counties.

It is not possible to describe how tolerant and patient Lindsey was during our 25 minute interview and how idiotic I felt upon reviewing it, but after Lindsey's lay description, a bit of research and the writing of the article, I finally understand what the hell is going on.

I do not care if I am the only one who didn't understand it before, I'm explaining it here (I just hope I got my math right).

We pay Cox Communications about $50 a month for Internet service (the miserable blood sucking vampires), which is thusly described on the bill:

Essential Internet Service
Download speeds up to 5 Mbps

Five megabits per second, eh?

Dig this:

1,000,000,000: gigabit
1,000,000: megabit

Mac hookups, 1993, left and 2015, right
Hence, when information travels at one gigabit per second (gbps) through a fiber optic network, it's moving 1,000 times faster than information traveling through a coaxial cable at a megabit per second (mbps). That's because fiber optic cable transmits information via light pulses. My coaxial cable transmits information via a radio frequency signal. So when someone says that fiber optic internet is LIGHTning fast, it's not just an expression.

People, data along the Health-Tech Corridor will travel 20,000 times faster than it does here at the Offices of Erin O'Brien.


In 1993, my brother John paid $1,400 for a then-state of the art Mac Color Classic, which featured an expansive four-megabyte hard drive and a processor that operated at a staggering 16-megahertz. Think that's bad? I'll never forget how we all gathered 'round Dad's first four-function calculator circa 1972. That mysterious and magical machine cost him $400.

I am not kidding.

So it took 20 years for a Mac hard drive to increase by a thousand fold. As for the fiber optic installations in the United States, most are in the nonprofit and commercial sectors.

How long until there's a digital Festivus for the rest of us in the residential sector?

"It's going to be a long process," said Lindsey during our interview. "It's going to take billions of dollars invested across the country to make that happen."

1993 Mac info panel
For those readers who just audibly sighed, there is hope. After all, Netflix and Google reeeeaaaally want to sell us expensive streaming plans. And it's already starting in Austin, Texas and even Chanute, Kansas.

To put this in perspective, my guess is that it will look a lot like the cable television roll out of the 1980's since it means actually connecting a network of cables. Maybe it's closer than you think. You can check here.

Until the United States catches up to countries like South Korea, I shall chug along with my laughable connection knowing my kid will be able to tell her kid what life was like back when she was a kid and internet service was only five megabits per second.

Got buffering?

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Geoffrey A. Landis said...

Well, twenty-thousand times more data per second. But the data won't be moving any faster, just more of it moving.

Jack Cluth said...

Back in the late '80s, I did customer for a software firm here in Portland. I'd have to get into a customer's mainframe remotely over a dial-up connection at...wait for it...1200 baud. That seemed lightning fast at the time. Now I marvel at how slow it truly was. It's amazing what we can adapt to and what then becomes the expectation.

Anonymous said...

Your Pop's calculator probably had more computing capability than that which Apollo 11 took to the moon.