Remember dial-up internet? Most of us do and it’s not so very long ago that speeds of 56K were considered fast when it came to accessing the delights of the world wide web.
And while it may have been fine for checking GeoCities pages and bulletinboards, as our demands and uses of the internet became more complex so higher speeds became more necessary, can you imagine using iTunes or YouTube on a 56K modem? Neither could the service providers who now vie for our attention, trying to find the balance between faster connections and lower prices.
Currently the fastest speed on offer in the UK and US and most of Europe lie somewhere between 2MB and 10MB while China, South Korea and Japan lead the way in ‘fibre-to-the-home’ broadband lines. However many western nations such as America, Sweden and Romania are following close behind. Over the next few paragraphs we’ll be explaining fibre optics, the amazing technology behind the new generation of internet connections, so read on to find out Just how it works, where you can find it and why some countries are faster than others.
In most countries, broadband is delivered down copper telephone wire, which suffers from speed, range and breadth restrictions. The wire, which is prevalent across most networks, often dates from the early 20th or even late 19th Century and carries information through electric pulses.
This is problematic in terms of maintaining speed at long ranges as all electrical transmissions are subject to high electrical resistance, and information effectiveness is compromised. In addition, electrical transmission lines suffer when tightly packed from crosstalk – a phenomenon by which a signal transmitted on one circuit or channel of a transmission system creates an undesired effect in another circuit or channel. In short, the system is an ageing one, unable to meet today’s demands.
Superfast broadband explained
The brand new breed of superfast broadband connections is made possible by switching from copper telephone wires to new fibre optic cables. Fibre optic broadband essentially works by transmitting data as pulses of light from an exchange throughout an optical fibre -a cable consisting of a light-carrying glass core, light-reflecting cladding (to ensure total light retention) and protective buffer coating – before then receiving and decoding that information at the far end with a transceiver.
A fibre optic line is an excellent medium for communication purposes as it holds numerous advantageous properties over the existing copper-based wiring networks. Most notable is its long-distance data delivery speed, a factor made possible because light propagates through fibre with little attenuation and, obviously, at the speed of light. Further, each fibre optic cable can carry many independent channels of information, each using a different wavelength of light, so the sheer amount of data is increased also.
The last mile
The term ‘the last mile’ refers to the final leg of delivering broadband communications from a provider to a user. In reality, the last mile may in fact be considerably further than a mile, with many miles separating the two. This is because at this late stage any main cable must be fanned out and split to service numerous separate clients, often living far apart. This is time-consuming and carries a large expense. However, if the ‘last mile’ is too great a distance, then the cable infrastructure is rendered useless as it cannot sustain information flow due to speed loss.
To address these connectivity issues many operators share and splice networks to reach customers, with cabling varying in type and length depending on where the user is based. This has the obvious drawback that while initially a line from a provider may be fibre optic (carrying data faster and further with less speed loss), at the users’ end, in the ‘last mile’, it may be fanned out onto an old, pre-existing copper line, which, as we’ve mentioned, sustains high-speeds poorly, especially over large distances.
Why are some countries faster than others?
If you’ve been looking at the speeds on offer in Asian countries and experiencing an extreme case of broadband envy then you might be wondering just why the services on offer in South Korea, Hong Kong and even Sweden are better than those in the US or UK. Part of the answer lies in financial outlay; Japan, South Korea and Sweden have all made significant investment in fibre optic networks.
Urban density plays its part in the disparity too. Much of the population in South Korea live in very dense apartment complexes. Most of the superfast broadband service has been delivered by fibre optic connections into the basements of buildings like these, then to the individual apartments by fast DSL. So while the fastest broadband connection in the world currently resides in the UK this is unlikely to see domestic role-out soon due to the prohibitive nature of upgrading the existing network.
The fastest broadband in the world
From the 20 March 2010, the title of world’s fastest broadband supplier was awarded to Virgin Media after it demonstrated its 200Mbps service trials at Earls Court, London. That speed is four times faster than its current top-end 50Mbps connection and twice that of the already reported 100Mbps connection due at the end of 2010. Virgin achieved this record speed by using the DOCSIS 3 (Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification) international telecommunications standard that allows for high-speed data transfer over an existing hybrid fibre coaxial infrastructure. Despite the epic speed, the service is not currently commercially available, however, and an early estimate has put it being introduced, depending on demand, in mid 2012.
What can superfast broadband be used for?
Cloud computing, online gaming, digital downloads and live streaming of television and films are but a selection of the possible services fibre optic broadband can be utilised for. Indeed, already a host of applications and services are being set up to exploit the benefits fibre optic broadband brings. NetFlix, for example, allows for an unprecedented selection of titles – both from the current season of television, classical film archives and new Hollywood releases – to be instantly streamed live over the internet with no waiting or downloading. Gaming services like Steam allow for titles to be bought online, then downloaded and played instantly without the buyer ever needing to leave the house. Online gaming is also quicker and users experience lower ping rates and reduced lag.