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It all began with the sounds of a dial-up modem screeching as it connected to the Internet. Then these connections graduated to a vast cable infrastructure. But what’s the next big technology for connecting an increasingly data-hungry world to the Internet?

While cable remains a solid, wired solution for connecting to the Internet in many places, its adaptation has stumbled outside of the U.S. where a shaky infrastructure produced poor wireline connections. DSL came along after cable, and quickly became known as high-speed DSL as customers used more data faster, ever pushing the capacity of their phone lines. In rural areas, satellite often remains the only player in the game.

However, more and more, the only phrase on the lips of services, companies, and customers alike has been optical fiber.


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Optical fiber has long been in use providing the major long distance wiring that makes up the backbone of the Internet. Indeed, the competition today is among service companies trying to bring the wiring from that backbone to your house or business, to service that “last mile” — the one that isn’t already handled by fiber.

Although it’s more expensive than the other connection technologies, the results are hard to argue with: optical fiber can reportedly achieve speeds up to six times faster than DSL or cable (cable can theoretically achieve speeds of 30 Mbps, but realistically averages 6 Mbps. Likewise, DSL achieves about 6 Mbps, while fiber can hit 35 Mbps). More importantly, it is currently the wireline solution best in place to handle the astounding increase in data usage — something wireless solutions like LTE and Wi-Max cannot do on their own.

Mainly due to the tremendous increase in streaming video, particularly HD video, only the virtually unlimited bandwidth provided by optical fiber networks can handle current needs for wired and wireless connectivity. Parks Associates has estimated that the number of U.S. households subscribing to fiber optic Internet would increase to 18 million by the end of 2011. Perhaps more telling are the estimates from Cisco that anticipate a “quadrupling of Internet traffic by 2015,” with “ more than 5.6 billion handheld or personal mobile-ready devices and more than 1.5 billion machine-to-machine connections… forecasted.”

It’s not just mobile, or video, or even mobile video driving all this data hunger. It’s also the increase in cloud computing, which is reliant on an Internet connection, IPTV, video on demand, file sharing, user-generated content, online gaming, social networking and applications taxing the tubes.

Fiber seems up to that challenge, boosting data rates and extending reach over copper fiber. The current goal of providers is to offer what is referred to as a triple-play (voice, data and video over one network) but as fiber’s use and popularity increases, expect to see them branch out to building fixed access or wireline Internet with wireless access technologies in order to provide networks that will offer always-on broadband services on a constant basis.

Wire image via ShutterStock

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