Guest Column: High-speed fiber-optic cable ring will be far reaching

(This is the first of three articles on the need for a high-speed fiber-optical network in northern Illinois.)

There’s been a lot of talk recently, on the pages of The Rock River Times and elsewhere, about the City of Rockford’s efforts to light up a long dormant 22-mile fiber-optic cable ring here; and we think that’s good, because the City’s effort is extremely important to future business development in this community.

In some ways, lighting this fiber ring is akin to the coming of the railroad in the 19th century. Before the last stretch of track was completed between Rockford and Chicago in the 1850s, this area was effectively isolated from agricultural and manufacturing markets in the East, and local businesses had to be content with selling their wares within a 100-mile radius.

The railroad changed all this. Less than a year after its arrival, farmers in northern Illinois were selling their grain—and this was mainly a wheat-growing region in the 1850s—on the European market and earning record profits. Local citizens regarded the railroad with a great deal of civic pride. More than anything else, it was seen as legitimizing our claims to big-town status. There were parades, train whistles, and cannon blasts when the Galena & Chicago Union line rolled into Rockford in August 1852.

A ubiquitous high-speed fiber-optic network here, when it’s finally available, will be heralded with a lot less fanfare than this, but its impact on this community is likely to be just as far-reaching.

Why should we care about fiber-optics?

What are “fiber optics” and “broadband communications”? Why are they important?

As everyone knows, the Internet has exploded in popularity over the past decade, even though the core technology has been around for more than 30 years. Internet communications are becoming cheaper and cheaper, as mass-market adoption spurs competition for equipment, and transmission lines become faster.

Cable modem and data subscriber lines today give consumers transmission speeds of 1 to 2 million bits-per-second. (Just a few years ago, we were using 56,000 bits-per-second modems.) There are more and more online applications. And as streaming audio, interactive video conferencing, and sharing of large-design documents and images become standard, greater bandwidth is demanded.

Networking speeds are increasing faster than computers in general. Local area networks (LANs) have reached speeds of a billion bits per second. (Twenty years ago, 2,400 bits-per-second were considered “state of the art”.) And these trends show no signs of slowing down. Wide Area Networks (WAN) using traditional copper phone lines cannot keep up. And wireless is promising in certain cases, fiber-optic cables are the only answer.

Fiber-optic cables use laser light instead of electricity to transmit information. Fiber-optics can carry 10,000 times more information, over longer distances, than copper.

Indeed, in recent years, the development of multi-colored lasers and receivers has increased the upper limits ten-fold. A single fiber-cable pair is now capable of transmitting hundreds of billions of bits per second.

Think of it. A typical DVD holds 4 billion bytes or so of digital video information. To transmit this amount of data over a 56K modem takes more than 50 hours. Over a DSL, this shrinks to three hours. And over a fiber connection, this takes less than a minute.

Time is money

So who should care about these speeds? Well, just about any business that needs to share medical images, design drawings, or conduct business transactions. Or set up video-based meetings, install remote video surveillance, or collaborate online. Or provide remote access to servers. And that’s most businesses, including the following:

Businesses that have to access the digital marketplace to receive electronic bid invitations, accept orders, and exchange information with customers and supply-chain partners;

Health care providers that need to move large data files (i.e. digital x-rays and other patient information), using secure HIPAA-compliant methods;

Educational systems that want to match industry standards and capacity for IP technology;

Municipalities that want to embrace IP technology as part of their core infrastructure supporting integrated communications systems for fire, police, and other emergency responses; and

Communities that consider high-bandwidth IP infrastructure to be as critical to business expansion and retention as good roads and utilities.

In the era of increasing global competition, access to information is one of the keys to productivity gains. Reducing “transaction costs” requires the removal of “friction points” in a business. Both mean speed, and speed means money.

Just about every form of communication today is converging in Internet Protocol, which has the advantage of removing prorietary barriers. Common standards drive down costs, as the history of the telephone, radio, and television has demonstrated conclusively.

In the 21st century, it doesn’t matter where we live any more. What matters is our ability to use and access information. Affordable high-speed communications are critical to the future competitiveness of this region and nation; and the United States is already lagging far behind other countries in the race to be the world leader.

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