With Internet usage growing quickly, researchers at many telecommunications companies are developing next-generation opto-electronic communications systems that can satisfy society's deep hunger for more and more bandwidth.
Demand is continually growing as details of our e-mail, bank balances, and national security zip along on light waves. And consumers can't get enough video clips on YouTube, television shows on Hulu, and movies streamed to them by Netflix that they watch on their computers and TVs.
To handle the future Internet traffic jam, scientists are tapping the speed and other characteristics of light to pack more layers of information into each optical fiber in the central networks so that more data can flow simultaneously down the Internet backbone, in effect creating wider "streets" for the Internet traffic.
Old systems used light that was either on or off to send information along the fibers in the binary language of zeros and ones. But light is an electromagnetic wave, so it has a whole electrical field that scientists are now putting to work to add to the information on each wavelength.
Alcatel-Lucent recently announced a system for telecommunications service providers that takes advantage of both the polarization and phases of light to encode data. The system can more than double the capacity of a single fiber, said James Watt, head of the company's optics division. Such a system, for example, can transmit more than twice the number of high-definition TV channels than can now be streamed concurrently.
Other companies trying to solve the problem include Infinera and Ciena.