Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Most Human Telecommunication still Requires Stupid Wires

On October 25, there was an article in the New York Times by David Sanger and Eric Schmitt titled Russian Presence Near Vital Undersea Cables Causes Worry. Here is the passage that got me:

“The role of the cables is more important than ever before. They carry more than $10 trillion a day in global business, including from financial institutions that settle their transactions on them every second. Any significant disruption would cut the flow of capital. The cables also carry more than 95 percent of daily communications.” 

A few days later (Nov. 4), the Christian Science Monitor added:

“...a network of fiber-optic cables does crisscross the world’s oceans, connecting countries and continents. Each cable is about three inches thick. At its center are several fiber-optic fibers that transmit data as pulses of red light. Submarine cables carry around 99 percent of transoceanic communications... That means 99 percent of telephone and Internet data that crosses an ocean – from Europe to the US, from Canada to Asia, from Iceland or Australia to anywhere else – travels through a thin strand of optical fiber bundled into a cable and laid across the ocean floor.”

So I started thinking: What? I thought that by now, most human communication on earth is wireless, no?

I mean, wireless communication goes back at least to the 19th century, right? It’s called RADIO, and it was discovered/invented by Marconi, among others, right?

I grew up in France, where radio was colloquially called “TSF,” meaning “telegraphie/telephonie sans fil,” or “wireless communication/transmission.”

Since then, we have seen the emergence of television, computers and the Internet, GPS, smart phones, Wi Fi, thousands of satellites circling the earth, giant radio telescopes that receive radio signals from trillions of miles away.

It therefore surprises me to learn that the vast majority of human telecommunication still requires solid-state means of transmission - primarily fiberoptic cables strewn at the bottom of the world’s oceans. In other words, while the materials used for these cables (copper, plastic, glass, polymers) have improved a great deal, the basic technology hasn’t changed since 1858, when the first transatlantic cable was completed.

So I had to remember some basics: There are now principally two forms of electronic telecommunication: (1) Wired and (2) Wireless. (1) wired means you use a cable of some sort. (2) wireless means using electromagnetic waves. One form of wireless communication is Free-space optical communication (FSO). “This is an optical communication technology that uses light propagating in free space to wirelessly transmit data for telecommunications or computer networking. "Free space" means air, outer space, vacuum, or something similar. This contrasts with using solids such as optical fiber cable or an optical transmission line.”

I consulted with a couple of friends, including Dick, who has spent a lifetime working as an engineer for AT&T.

Speed: Wireless communication goes at the speed of light. Nothing can go faster. Someone told me that fiber optic communication is about 30% slower than wireless communication, because it goes through glass rather than air. I was also told that nowadays, copper wires have been perfected to the point where they can transmit almost as rapidly as glass. So as far as speed is concerned, it doesn’t matter much whether you go wired or wireless, because even at half the speed of light, you can reach every part of the world within a fraction of a second. The thing that slows you down is the SWITCHING from wireless to wired, which is inevitable, since most transmissions must utilize BOTH forms at one point or another between sender and receiver.

Computer networks can be wired or wireless. We may operate with a wireless local computer network, but the greatest network of them all - the Internet - is most definitely still (largely) wired! 

As just mentioned, whether you use a smart phone or a computer, at some point you are wired and at some point you are wireless: The parts of the “Internet” that are NOT wired are primarily the local “in-house” connections between your computer/smart phone and your modem.

My friend Dick confirms this. He says that basically everything ends up running through cables. From your cell phone to the nearest cell site (antenna, tower) you connect wirelessly (radio waves). From there your call is converted to cable and transmitted via cable to the tower covering the cell phone you are calling. Even satellite calls are eventually switched to cables. You are not even fully “wireless” when you call across town.

My personal experience had obscured this very basic fact, because LOCALLY, we do often operate wirelessly. My Wi Fi router is wireless. My iPhone is wireless. But as Dick says, you should think of Wi Fi as just another cell site. Beyond your home or your hotel it, too, is dependent on a cable.

My radios at home and in my cars are wireless. Right now, only my telephone landline and my Comcast TV are wired. But what I forgot is that wireless communications are largely LOCAL, and that beyond that, the communication hubs still must be PHYSICALLY (I mean solidly) interconnected. Most INTERCONTINENTAL telecommunication still requires cables. And while local area networks CAN operate wirelessly, even these are often wired.

With the advent of satellites, a long-distance message’s trajectory can now be LARGELY wireless. When I talk to my mother in Holland on my iPhone, we are NOT physically (solidly) connected. Only the beginning and end points of the communication require wiring. For the rest, our words go over the Atlantic via  satellite. This roundabout way (up to the satellite and back down) takes about 80,000 kilometers.  That’s why there is a slight time lag, and we sometimes talk a little bit through each other, because even at or near the speed of light, it  takes a fourth of a second for my words to reach my mother. When I use my landline phone to call her, there is no such noticeable time lag. GPS, same thing.

Radio is the oldest wireless form of communication. We communicate by wireless radio with astronauts on the moon, space probes on Mars, and we receive radio signals from stars that are trillions of miles away. Radio waves are magnetic waves which travel at the speed of light and can only go straight. That’s why I can’t get radio Australia, unless it’s reflected or refracted through the ionosphere.

What about the “cloud”? Sounds nice and mysterious. But it’s just a bunch of massive storage drives in some physical place, who knows where, maybe in the US, maybe in India or somewhere else, depending on whether it’s the “Amazon cloud,” or the “Verizon cloud,” or the “Apple cloud...”

So here I was thinking: We have reached the marvelous age when telecommunication (= long distance communication) no longer requires building expensive “lines”/electrical conductors, call it what you wish, made of copper, plastic, glass and other MATTER. Instead, I thought that we now go smoothly through the “ether,” so to speak. But I was wrong. leave comment here

© Tom Kando 2015.