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Thanks to computer and communications technology we live in exciting times. The bounds of technological possibilities seem limitless. The changes decade by decade have already been unprecedented. Where is all this going?

Or see a youthful one from the past [31st October 1986]  here...

 

How wide is enough?

 

The impact of readily available information and faster communications on all contemporary social activity has been and will continue to be profound. This impact has grown exponentially since the launch of the first personal computers forty years ago, the advent of the Internet and the first cellular phones twenty years ago and 3G phones ten years ago.

The way we make things has been transformed too; the use of electronic devices for process control and automated equipment (NC machines, robots, profile cutters etc) is now ubiquitous.  Plant management, information systems, inventory and process control as well as the use of computer aided design (CAD) and computer aided manufacturing (CAM) is widely applied.  Today all medium to large businesses have computer based accounting, HR and CRM systems.   These trends are credited with the very significant productivity gains evident in the latter part of last century.

Communications technology, once limited to government provided voice; telegrams; and 'snail mail' services; has played a pivotal role in these developments.

During the past fifty years, the telecommunications carriers have been privatised across the world.  They are increasingly embracing computer technology and protocols.  In particular they have largely adopted Ethernet network technology for customer delivery (in addition to the older ATM) employing the TCP/IP data encapsulation standards developed for internetworking on computer networks.

At the same time a vast array of new computing services has sprung up. In particular graphics, video and sound has replaced or complimented plain text and simple diagrams. The old data storage means have been replaced several times over.  This volume increase has generated ever increasing demands for communications bandwidth. 

Ten years ago only corporate networks employed symmetrical bandwidths in excess of 64Kbits per second.  Today even a 3G mobile phone has a theoretical bandwidth over one hundred times that.  Business networks have struggled to keep up with this demand.  Where economically possible, business networks now prefer optical fibre to achieve the required system speeds.

Whereas copper telephone (Plain Old Telephone Service - POTS) wires were designed for very low bandwidth voice services and have been 'stretched' to deliver much higher bandwidths by clever multiplexing techniques, optical fibre is designed for optimal digital performance and does not suffer the same rapid bandwidth degradation with distance (of copper services).

Because light has very much higher frequency than the radio frequencies used over copper, the theoretical data bandwidths of fibre exceed the present electronic capabilities of the connecting circuits. For this reason many intermediate speed links use fibre to the node technology in which high bandwidth fibre carries many messages (as data packets) and delivers these to the local POTS network for short length, high speed, local delivery (and collection).  The shorter the POTS lines are, the faster can be the service.

Several governments are legislating to deliver or are investing themselves in optical fibre to homes and businesses to leap-frog anticipated future bandwidth bottlenecks.  These initiatives, like the Australian National Broadband Network (NBN), anticipate future improvements in electronics and a substantial increase in consumer demand for high bandwidth services. 

Although the optical fibre bandwidth theoretically available is well in excess of that supportable by wireless (for example mobile phone technology or satellites) there will be bottlenecks for a considerable time as there is presently insufficient internet backbone to support the global bandwidth at the exchange of converging home and business connections. In particular, international communications links will need a considerable upgrade if the potentially installed fibre bandwidth is to be fully exploited.

A further complication is that the TCP/IP protocol itself is running out of address space.  The current version (IPv4) uses 32 bits for its address (the familiar four groups of three numbers).  This needs to be upgraded to IPv6 that uses 128 bits for the address.  Initially this will be applied by carriers to the backbone but in due course every router and switch in the world and ultimately, all network and internet connected devices and associated software, will need to be upgraded or replaced.  Any forward looking national broadband strategy will need to anticipate this to avoid becoming a 'white elephant' when the change flows down to the consumers' terminating devices.

It has become an accepted principle since data networks were first developed that data traffic expands to fill the bandwidth available.  Similarly data volume expands to fill the data storage available and programs develop to exploit the speed available. 

It is observed in the industry that 'What Intel Giveth, Microsoft Taketh Away'. It is therefore confidently predicted that within a short time after its introduction, some high end users will complain that any new network is too slow. But fibre optical technology is currently the fastest we have.  Within the next decade the only technically or theoretically faster transport systems available will employ either more fibre strands (a simple multiplication) or faster, yet to be delivered, electronics and related software at each end.  Beyond that, technological developments into the far ultra-violet or gamma spectrum might use an alternative transmission medium to present generation glass fibre or quantum physics might allow transmission at higher data densities.

Small fractions of these speeds are required for conventional text or audio transmission.  The extra bandwidth is all about multimedia (movies, high quality images) and possible future developments in this space such as 3D TV and ultimately, full virtualisation with total immersion (vision plus other sensations).  The demand for these leading edge applications is presently being driven by gamers but it is likely that all home entertainment will develop along these lines over the next decade.  IP TV is already available and video telephony is expected to progressively replace voice only services.

 

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