History of the fibre network

History of the fibre network
Mathias Ditlev
January 8, 2019

This is the first part of a 2 part mini-series on the history and future of fibre broadband.

Fibre networks are one of the fastest ways to transport data, and we have seen a huge uptake in broadband technology in recent years. But did you know that the technology dates back to the 1840s? In this article, we look at the history of fibre, from its origins to the development of the technology. We also look at how fibre networks differ from DSL and COAX broadband technologies.

history of the fibre network
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The origin of the idea

Back in the 1840s, two men - the Frenchman Jaques Babinet and the Swiss Daniel Colladon - demonstrated the light-conducting effect of water. The way this was done was by setting up a container of water, which had an area where the water had a chance to drain out. As the water ran out of the container, the path of water was illuminated at the same time, showing that the light followed the water as it ran out.

Following on from the above, the experiment was carried out in 1854 by a British physicist named John Tyndall for the Royal Society. It then became more widely known that light could also travel through a curved line, and not just a straight line - thus proving that light signals could be bent. It was through this experiment that the basic idea of fibre emerged.

The development of the idea

Alexander Graham Bell, Photophone
Photophone, Alexander Graham Bell

A few years later, in 1880, Alexander Graham Bell came up with his invention, which he called the "photophone". This invention made it possible to transmit sounds through a light signal. Alexander Graham Bell's invention relied on light, but there were many things that could affect this, so further research into the Photophone and its potential was shelved. However, the invention later became the predecessor of fibre technology.

In the same year, William Wheeler invented a system based on light tubes with a highly reflective coating. This made it possible to illuminate homes through light from an arc that carried light around the home using the tubes. In fact, as early as 1888, bent glass rods were also used for medical purposes by Dr Roth and Prof Reuss in Vienna.

Technology takes off

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, experiments with the technology began in earnest - including attempts to guide light images through the bent glass rods. In 1920, the idea of using transparent rods to transmit images to television was even patented. This was done by John Logie Baird, with Clarence W. Hansell also did the same - only for fax. However, a German doctor named Heinrich Lamm was the first to transmit images through a bundle of optical fibres, which was done in 1930. However, the images were very unclear and he never had the opportunity to continue his studies and improve the technology due to his Jewish background in Germany during World War II, and he was therefore forced to leave for America.

The father of fibre

In the mid-1950s, Narinder Singh Kapany, later known as the father of optical fibres, and Harold Hopkins continued to work on image transmission using optical fibres. They managed to create a clearer image using bundles of over 10,000 fibres. After the successful experiment, Narinder Singh Kapany wrote an article on fibre optics in Scientific American, introducing the subject to a much wider audience.

Because of this greater exposure, Narinder Singh Kapany is often associated with the father of fibre. However, due to light loss, the technology could not reach over a very long distance. The engineer Charles Kuen Kao saw the problem and found, among other things, that a cleaner form of glass in the technology could reduce light loss and increase range. In addition, it was also identified that the attenuation in optical fibres could be reduced to 20 decibels per kilometre, which would result in lower losses. However, this reduction target was not reached until later in 1970, after which it has been reduced much further.

Fibre compared to other broadband types

The technology
As discussed in the previous sections, fibre networks are centred around the so-called fibre cables that transport data using light signals. These fibre cables, also called optical fibre cables, contain optical fibres made up of very thin strands of fibre - as thin as hairs - made of glass or plastic material. In fact, one light signal has no effect on other light signals, which means that the individual fibre has an extremely high capacity independently of the other fibres.

DSL technologies, on the other hand, are based on copper cables consisting of copper wires twisted around each other. This allows an analogue signal to be created and used to connect to the Internet. The reason why the copper wires are wound around each other is to reduce any noise that may be generated by the connection.

Again, there are differences in the way COAX technology is structured compared to DSL and fibre networks. COAX is based on what are called coaxial cables - hence the name. These cables are basically just an ordinary aerial cable, which consists of an inner conductor that has a screen around it to minimise noise and make the signal better.

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Compared to various DSL technologies and even COAX, fibre networks are significantly faster. Furthermore, fibre networks also allow for more stable speeds than the aforementioned technologies. Moreover, if you use fibre as your broadband technology, the number of people using the internet at the same time does not affect the speed, which is due to the bandwidth. This in turn is an advantage for fibre networks, as both DSL broadband and COAX technologies both degrade the more users are using the internet at the same time.

One of the major differences between fibre networks and the aforementioned broadband technologies is that fibre networks deliver symmetrical speeds, meaning that download and upload speeds are the same. In other words, this means that you don't have a very large spread between upload and download speeds, which is advantageous if you not only need a fast download speed but also need to upload large files to, for example, the cloud.


What will the future bring?

We have now looked at how the idea for fibre technology came about, and how different people influenced its development, right up to the first image being sent through optical fibres. We hope you've learned more and that you're interested in finding out more about fibre!

To find out more about what the future holds, read the next article, where we will also look at the take-up and coverage of the technology.

This article has been prepared in collaboration with Samlino.dk.