Rewiring Speed Limits

Author:  Victor Yee

Date:  January 2008

The typical home user today connects to the Internet through copper cable phone or cable lines. Through these lines, the user has gained access to an unprecedented amount of information. However, as more high-quality material become available online, these lines now pose a speed limit, at up to ten megabits per second (Mbps), for the typical user. Fiber optics, on the other hand, can potentially bring this limit into the gigabits per second (Gbps). A home user with an eight Mbps connection would take about two and a half hours to download a nine gigabyte hour-long high-definition TV episode; a user with a one Gbps would take under thirty minutes. Recognizing a golden opportunity, researchers and companies have become interested in the spread of fiber optic technology into the typical home user's own abode.

Fiber optic telecommunications utilize lasers rather than electricity to transmit data and has become the preferred method of sending extremely high volumes of data at exceptionally fast bandwidths between core networks of the Internet. These backbone connections link internet service providers across the world together.

However, fiber optics have so far proven difficult to implement into the typical user's home. Production of optical technology en masse is currently economically unfeasible, and implementing a fiber optic network into any community can be vastly expensive.

"You probably have a few hundred million transistors in the computer next to you, but an optical chip at the moment has, at best, a few tens of devices on a big chip of several square centimeters," said Professor Benisty of FUNFOX, an EU-funded project researching fiber optic telecommunication. The price of a single packaged device will be typically €200 [$295]."


FUNFOX is one of many research ventures into fiber optic telecommunication. Using photonic crystals, the fiber optic analogy to the semiconductor crystals, along with indium phosphide chips, FUNFOX is developing one-chip optical transmitters and receivers. Semiconductors are special metals with dynamic yet controllable conductivities, which allow the "storage" of certain signals, such as 1's and 0's. Indium phospide is a semiconducting alloy.

Current optic fiber technology requires several different devices to transmit and receive, because of the need to control and maintain certain wavelengths as signals traverse optic fibers and the conversion of these wavelengths back into electrical signals. FUNFOX is developing an all-in-one chip that can accomplish all of these functions, which will drastically reduce costs.

FUNFOX currently seeks a manufacturing partner. When such a partner is found, exciting new developments in fiber optic technology at the consumer level may arise.

Written by Victor Yee

Reviewed by Pooja Ghatalia

Published by Pooja Ghatalia.