Friday, November 20, 2009

Copper Thrives In The 21st Century

Alexander Graham Bell loved copper wire. His Bell Telephone Company and others strung it on poles and buried it in the ground until there were thousands upon thousands of miles of small gauge copper wire connecting nearly every home and business. And that’s the way it’s stayed for over 100 years. Now that we’re in the 21st century, all that copper is just another metallic element being reclaimed by nature as we move on to fiber optic cables. Isn’t that the way it is?

Telephone poles and wires signalling. It's all about the copper!

Nope. The fiber optic era was fantasized along with flying cars. Fiber technology has advanced farther than George Jetson’s personal vehicle, but it’s still copper that rules. Even the old stuff that’s been in the ground for decades is getting a new lease on life in the digital age.

Copper is so popular because there is so much of it. A century of standardization and build-out makes it very attractive to connect to those copper pair fastened to the plywood sheet in the telephone closet. You could insist on a more modern fiber optic termination, but there are no glass fibers on that plywood. If you want fiber, you have to pay to have it brought in. It probably costs no more than stringing new copper, but the copper’s already there. Somebody else paid to have it installed a long time ago.

But isn’t copper an old analog technology that can’t possibly keep up with today’s high speed network demands?

Well, it’s true that copper telco wiring was installed with analog signals in mind. But a flowing electron is a flowing electron regardless of whether it is part of a 48 volt battery current or a Ethernet packet. The physics of conduction doesn’t know the difference. Where we hit the wall was when we tried to send digital signals down a circuit that was still set up for analog telephony. Those were the dial-up modems that topped out at 56 Kbps. But do you know that those very same telephone wires now carry Megabit per second signals?

In fact, DSL shares the very same wires as analog telephone service. Instead of trying to mimic a phone call the way modems did, DSL sends digital signals on frequencies well above those you can hear. True, DSL signals fade out quickly over distance. But if there is a digital termination nearby you can transport as much as 100 Mbps to the home or business using DSL technology.

That distance restriction is removed if you use two pair of copper telephone wires to deliver T1 line service. The bandwidth is a solid 1.5 Mbps in both directions and is highly reliable. Where can you get T1 service? Just about anywhere you can get a regular telephone installed.

T1 is the most popular form of digital connection for business. It is used for telephone trunk lines with up to 23 phone lines carried by a T1 PRI trunk, also knows as ISDN PRI. Business broadband is provided by T1 dedicated Internet access. You can also get something called Integrated T1 that combines both telephone and Internet on the same line.

As the need for business bandwidth expands, copper remains viable. It’s easy to bond T1 lines together to multiply bandwidth by 2x, 3x, or even 10x. Bonded T1 line service allows businesses to add lines as network activity increases.

A newer and lower cost bandwidth option is EoC or Ethernet over Copper. This technology uses special termination equipment to bond multiple copper pair to deliver Ethernet Internet service at the standard 10 Mbps up to 45 Mbps. You can also order lower bandwidths if you don’t need 10 Mbps at this time.

Standard analog loops, DSL, T1 lines and Ethernet over Copper are extending the useful life for installed copper telephone wiring well into the 21st century. Eventually it will all be replaced by glass fibers, but probably not in this generation.

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