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Article: Broadband IP Networks: Revolution in the Wind

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Article: Broadband IP Networks: Revolution in the Wind

Note: This is an archived article that appeared in the Teracom newsletter February 2001, and this article has not been updated to reflect technology developments since then.

Please be assured that our training courses have been updated since the time of this article!

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What do fiber optic transmission systems, “Broadband IP networks”, and the slumping price of the stock of the biggest telecommunications carrier in North America have in common?
This article previously appeared in the free monthly Teracom newsletter. subscribe
Over the past few years, a major advance in fiber-optic transmission technology called DWDM has been quietly laying the groundwork for the end of telecommunications, or at least data communications, as we know it today.
Fiber-optic transmission systems are the “pipes” that connect telecom companies' switching and transmission centers. These systems transmit 1s and 0s between Central Offices (COs), toll centers and special services centers at mind-bogglingly high rates. The base technology for representing the 1s and 0s on the glass fibers is called the Synchronous Optical Network (SONET) Optical Carrier (OC) system. Essentially, a laser flashes on and off to represent 1s and 0s. Light on = 0, light off = 1. The laser is operating at a single, pure “carrier frequency” that is of a frequency so high, we call it a color of light, and often refer to it by how long its wavelength is. A popular color of light used on these systems has a wavelength of about 1500 nanometers, or 1.5 millionths of a meter.
The Optical Carrier system was designed to move multiples of the DS3 rate, which is 45 million bits per second (Megabits per second, Mb/s). An OC3 carries three DS3s, or 3 x 45 Mb/s plus some overhead. OC48s are widely deployed. OC192 (10 billion bits per second, or 10 Gigabits per second, Gb/s) is currently off-the-shelf technology at the phone company, and OC768 (40 Gb/s) is next.
The traditional method of buying some of the capacity on these systems to connect two of an organization's buildings together, from a company like AT&T, for example, has been to get a “T1 circuit”. This is essentially a four-copper-wire access circuit that can carry 1.5 Mb/s going from your building to the nearest telephone company Central Office, where your 1.5 Mb/s are transferred onto one of these SONET transmission systems (along with lots of other peoples' traffic) using a multiplexer. The information is then carried on the fiber long-distance, and delivered over the last mile and a half between your building at the other and its nearest CO. This happens in both directions at the same time.
These “T1” circuits are ridiculously expensive. We're talking about a $1000 to $2000 installation charge, then a recurring charge of $500 per month per end “port charge”, plus mileage, for a total of something like US$2500 to $6000 per MONTH for 1.5 Mb/s. For one circuit. This is a very, very lucrative business for telecommunications carriers. The revenue from these kinds of services shows up on their financial statements.
But, like a snake in the grass, an advance in fiber optic transmission technology called Wave Division Multiplexing (WDM) or Dense Wave Division Multiplexing (DWDM) is lying in wait for these services. They are doomed.
DWDM refers to the idea of using multiple colors of light (called carriers in the optical business) on the same fiber. Current technologies put 30 to 300 colors of light on a single fiber, each representing a different OC192. We're headed towards 1600 and maybe 3000 wavelengths per fiber. Each representing 10 or maybe 40 Gb/s.
That's 120 Terabits per second [Hence the name “Teracom”...]. 120,000 Gigabits per second. 120 million Megabits per second. 80 million T1-equivalents per second. Per fiber. There are multiple fibers in a fiber-optic cable. Normally two fiber-optic cables are installed between switching centers for redundancy.
Every carrier: MCI, Pac Bell, AT&T, Ameritech, Bell Canada, Global Crossing, 360networks and all of the others you can think of are deploying this.
It would not be unrealistic to think that there are at least twelve of these cables running between San Jose and Los Angeles. That's 960 million T1-equivalents running between San Jose and Los Angeles.
There are 1.6 million people living in San Jose according to the US Bureau of Census; so that's enough for every man, woman and child in San Jose to have over 500 “T1s” going to Los Angeles. Or 14,000 simultaneous phone calls each. And that's just to LA. We haven't mentioned Sacramento and San Francisco.
Information Superhighway, anyone?
With capacity like this, the current pricing model for data circuits like “T1s” is toast. Along with the pricing model for domestic long-distance phone calls. With this much capacity, they could give it away and still make money. Uh, not. But there certainly is revolution in the wind. The oldest and biggest are going to go through the biggest change, to an All-IP Network running on this enormous bandwidth.
 
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