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Taking a page from T-Pain’s book, a team of EU-funded researchers has devised a means to get the most out of optical fiber’s capacity by fixing imperfections in optical signals, much as auto-tune software fixes pitch in audio signals. The technology could drastically improve broadband speeds, especially across long distance lines like those spanning oceans to connect continents.

Data travels through fiber optic networks when our electronic equipment encode it into light beams, which are then beamed through the optical fibers, often over great distances. But the integrity of the light signal decreases as those distances increase, due to both imperfections in the timing of the various parts of the light signal and because of interference caused by other signals traveling along the same fiber.

These imperfections cause distortion of the signal at the receiving end and limit how much data we can fire across our networks, not because the fiber can’t handle the signal load but because the capacity of our electronics to decipher all that distorted data. If the data came across sharpened and intact, the amount of data we could put on a fiber would drastically increase.

The EU researchers’ prototype device takes advantage of both advances in fiber optics and laser technology to ensure signals remain sharp, reducing the reliance on electronics to pull signals from all the noise. In a demonstration, their device locked onto signals coming down the optical pipeline with a laser, distinguishing it from the “cross-talk” noise generated by other signals. When the signal reaches its destination, the device restores it to the crisp, sharpened digital signal needed for swift processing, just as auto-tune removes interference and imperfections from a singer’s vocals.

Such technology could push broadband to levels limited only by the fiber cable itself rather than the signal processing equipment at each end. Though it’s still in prototype phase, upon further development the device could plug right into existing networks, significantly increasing broadband capacity in a relatively short period of time.