Forget gigabits, Bell Labs says petabits are coming

by Steve Blum • , ,

What’s a petabit for, if not more grumpy cats?

The theoretical fiber speed limit continues to increase. Bell Labs says it’s successfully tested technology that has the potential for moving data through an optical fiber at the speed of 1 petabit per second. A petabit is 1,000 terabits, which in turn is 1,000 gigabits. Currently, the top speed for optical fiber is in the 10 terabit to 20 terabit range, according to Bell Labs. The technique involves multiplexing six separate transmissions on a single fiber

Using the MIMO-SDM technique, Bell Labs aims to overcome the non-linear Shannon limit of currently deployed optical fiber. During the 6×6 real-time MIMO transmission technology experiment, crosstalk from multiple signals on a special fiber supporting six parallel optical signal paths was removed for the first time using real-time processing. This breakthrough brings the technology a step closer to reality compared to previous experiements using off-line processing.

The MIMO-SDM technique has the potential to increase current fiber capacities to a Petabit-per-second — enough capacity to allow two-thirds of the U.S. population to simultaneously stream HD movies over a single optical fiber.

It’s a long way from the lab to commercial use, though. Bell Labs isn’t saying when petabit-class technology will actually be deployable, but its press release talks about it in the context of 5G mobile networks, which means it’s something like five to ten years out.

Which is fine. Today’s fiber capacity bottlenecks are, for the most part, due to continued use of cheaper, older equipment rather than the limits of the more expensive new stuff that’s on the market. Bell Labs’ breakthrough means that we can expect today’s expensive gear to become tomorrow’s bargain. So long as dollars drive network upgrades, meeting ever growing demand remains an economic choice rather than a physical technology limit.