Optical Fibers
Epic Fireworks/Flickr CC by 2.0

Wires are so old school. Nowadays, most of our information (whether on the Internet, TV, or phone) is communicated over fiber optic cables, long strands of material that can transmit information as light over distances. And with a new discovery, fiber optic cables could become cheaper, more efficient, and could literally cover more ground.

The research is published in a new paper in Science where researchers at the University of California at San Diego tackled a problem familiar to anyone that has ever played ‘telephone.’ Just like when you were a kid and you sent a nonsensical whisper down a line of people, only to hear a totally different phrase at the end of the game, the longer a fiber optic cable is, the more chances for information to get distorted along the way. Today, we solve the problem with machines called repeaters placed strategically along a fiber optic route, which reduce the noise. But repeaters are expensive.

“Today’s fiber optic systems are a little like quicksand. With quicksand, the more you struggle, the faster you sink. With fiber optics, after a certain point, the more power you add to the signal, the more distortion you get, in effect preventing a longer reach. Our approach removes this power limit, which in turn extends how far signals can travel in optical fiber without needing a repeater,” Nikola Alic, one of the authors of the study said in a press release.

The approach Alic and his colleagues took was to develop a ‘frequency comb’–a method that removes the troublesome distortion by working with it. Instead of sending the information as is, the frequency comb alters information slightly at the start so that the distortion won’t affect it dramatically. When the information reaches its destination, it can be easily decoded because the receiver knows exactly how the information has been changed, and can change it back.

With the new method, the engineers showed that fiber optic cables could transmit information reliably over nearly 7,500 miles, twice as far as before, without needing expensive equipment stationed every 60 miles along the route to filter out the noise.

That means that more information can be transmitted faster and for less money. Looks like our small world might get even smaller.