Monday, November 18, 2013

Why Wireless Is The New Copper… But Not The New Fiber

By: John Shepler

Part of the world went incommunicado a couple of weeks ago. No, this had nothing to do with repressive regimes or criminal hacking. It’s a condition that is all too frequent and all too overpowering. Nature strikes and part of the planet goes dark… at least for awhile. It could be earthquake, volcano, hurricane, wildfire, tornado or flood. This one was named Haiyan and it was a massive typhoon that descended on the Philippines. Thousands dead, millions homeless and communications gone.

Typhoon Haiyan as viewed from the International Space Station courtesy of NASA.A characteristic of natural disasters is that they demolish infrastructure. That’s buildings and roads, certainly. It’s also radio towers, power lines and telephone wires. This infrastructure took months and years to install and it will take months and years to restore.

So, what happens in the meantime? It’s emergency communications and it’s almost always wireless. The nice thing about wireless is that, in its simplest forms, it can be deployed on a moment’s notice. Two way radio is a good example. The first communications to be re-established between Tacloban in the Philippines was ham radio. You can hear the story on Sunday’s Weekend Edition on NPR.

Hams, or amateur radio operators, have a long tradition of being first responders when electronic communications is needed. Each year they have a practice session called “Field Day” to test their ability for quickly establish working voice and data facilities in the middle of nowhere. Hams are also invaluable as storm spotters to keep taps on rapidly developing tornadoes.

What allows hams to step in when nothing else works is that they are self-contained. A fully functioning transceiver can be held in your hand and run on batteries, yet communicate for hundreds and even thousands of miles. The infrastructure is small, portable and easily deployed.

Cell phones are even smaller, more portable and self-contained. Plus, everybody’s got one. You don’t need any special training or licensing. It wireless communications for the masses that theoretically has no distance limit. Indeed, text messages and tweets have made it out of the world’s political hot spots when nothing else can.

The Achilles heel of cellular is the network of towers and switching centers that make the system work. A good strong blow from mother nature will level these and stop all communications indefinitely. Well, not indefinitely. These weaknesses have been recognized and workarounds created. One is satellite phones that don’t need local facilities. Another is a portable cell tower called a COW or Cell On Wheels. It a complete base station and antenna that can be towed in quickly to bring up phone service within a small service area.

How about traditional landlines? They go down for the count. There are just too many thin plastic coated copper wires stretched over too many miles to replace quickly. Some are buried, some were on utility poles shattered in the storm. Landlines got the jump on wireless because they were low tech, cheap and dependable compared to anything else in the first century of electronic communications. But now wireless has the advantage. It’s much quicker, easier and less expensive to install in developing nations that don’t have an existing landline infrastructure. They never will.

How about fiber? That’s a different story. Fiber optics span the globe and provide an especially important link under the seas. They co-exist with LEO (Low Earth Orbit) and geosynchronous satellites that also carry electronic communications. Despite the cost of deploying thousands of miles of fiber and built-in amplifiers from reels on specialized ships, fiber optic installations are increasing rather than decreasing. This is happening at the same time that satellite and other wireless systems are also growing. Why?

The answer is bandwidth. Nothing has bandwidth like fiber. Wireless capacity is limited by the extent of the electromagnetic spectrum and how clever we are at modulating it. Fiber is also electromagnetic in the sense that light waves carry the data bits. What’s different is that if you run out of capacity in a fiber strand you simply light up another strand. Common fiber cables have dozens if not hundreds of separate fiber strands. Each carries an electromagnetic spectrum of its own. Moreover, fiber can span hundreds or thousands of miles with the same carrying capacity. Wireless is limited to local cells interconnected by… you guessed it… fiber optic trunk cables.

The reason that landlines aren’t all fiber rather than copper is historical. Copper got there first. It’s all been paid for so the costs are strictly for maintenance plus upgrades in the terminal equipment that squeeze more bandwidth out of those copper pair. That will keep copper in business for decades to come, but it’s surely going away. In fact, much of the copper plant that was destroyed in New Jersey’s Hurricane Sandy won’t be replaced. Fiber and wireless will take over the job. Once it’s gone, it is no more likely that copper lines will return than will new steam engines.

Business network connections in the form of copper lines, fixed wireless and fiber optic cabling are readily available and less expensive than ever before. If you could use a bandwidth upgrade or simply more capacity for the same or less expense, get pricing and availability on voice and data circuits, plus cloud services now. For immediate service, you can call toll free (888)848-8749 for today’s best deals.

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Note: Photo of Typhoon Haiyan as viewed by the International Space Station courtesy of NASA on Wikimedia Commons.

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