The idea of “fast” has been around forever. A fast horse is quite different from a fast car, which is in a different category than a fast airplane. It’s all in the context.
In 1994, the top Internet speed topped out at 28.8 kilobits per second. It didn’t reach 1 megabit per second until 2003, but that was 35 times faster than nine years earlier. It was another eight years before it got to 100 Mbps. Today, you can order 1 Gbps — or faster — copper (cable) or fiber service. The average U.S. household might get between 35 Mbps and 75 Mbps because the faster stuff costs more.
But for some people, fast really isn’t fast enough. Researchers are always experimenting with methods to kick it up a notch. In 2018, the Internet speed record was shattered by a company named DreamHack, with the Guinness World Record set at 1.6 terabits per second.
Gigs and Teras
We talk about “Gigs” all the time, whether gigabytes or gigabits — but let’s make it clear that a “byte” and a “bit” are not the same thing. “Gigabyte” is commonly used for displaying a size of memory, while “gigabits” are mostly used for estimating local area network connection speed.
A gigabit is 1 billion bits, which is kind of mind-boggling, while a terabit is a trillion bits. That’s basically incomprehensible to us “regular” folk.
A trillion bits.
It took you longer to read that than 1.6 terabits zipping through the speed record.
The New King of Speed
But that was in 2018. In 2020, the speed record was topped again. If you thought 1.6 Tbps was incomprehensible, you might need to sit down to even attempt to understand the new Internet speed record.
178 terabits per second. That’s about 111 times faster than the prior record. And 178,000,000,000,000 of anything is a lot.
It’s so fast, if you had the right equipment — and enough money — you could download the entire Netflix library in literally the blink of an eye. Can you try to picture the fiber optics needed to even think about doing that in the real world?
How Scientists Made Data Go Faster
The record was achieved by transmitting data through a much wider range of colors of light, or wavelengths, than is typically used in optical fiber. Current infrastructure uses a limited spectrum bandwidth of 4.5THz, with 9THz commercial bandwidth systems entering the market, whereas the researchers used a bandwidth of 16.8THz.
To reach the record, researchers combined different amplifier technologies needed to boost the signal power over this wider bandwidth and maximized speed by developing new Geometric Shaping (GS) constellations (patterns of signal combinations that make best use of the phase, brightness and polarization properties of the light), therefore manipulating the properties of each individual wavelength.
How Fast Is Fast?
Although 178 Tbps is an amazing number . . . the very next year (2021), it was surpassed.
According to Japan’s National Institute Information & Communication Technology, engineers have achieved a record-breaking internet speed of 319 Tb/s, that was carried for over 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles). That’s an incredible achievement which can have a significant impact on our daily lives, not only offering faster internet speeds, but also more stable and reliable connections for everyone.
But don’t hold your breath: It will take years, if not decades, to roll out the technology that leads to your door. (5G, anyone?)
To achieve the 319 Tbps record, the team had to use some special add-ons that are only familiar to a set of very skilled and highly educated engineers working with lasers in labs. To show off their brains, the paper submission to the International Conference on Optical Fiber Communications says:
"We demonstrate the recirculating transmission of 552 x 25 GHz spaced channels covering >120 nm of S, C, and L-bands in a 125μm diameter, 4-core fiber, measuring a decoded throughput of 319 Tb/s at 3001 km."
So, yeah . . . what they said.
In other words, the NICT system made use of an experimental strand of fiber-optic cable that featured four cores housed in a cable that was roughly the size of a regular fiber optic line. Data was then looped through coiled bits of fiber optics that created a simulated transmission distance of 1,864 miles, with no degradation in speed being reported. With a path established, the researchers then used a 552-channel comb laser firing at multiple wavelengths through multiple amplifiers to speed into the history books.
What’s Next for Blazing Data Transmission
It's worth noting that a regular solid-state drive can't keep up with those data transfer speeds, but it's an exciting glimpse into the Internet of tomorrow. The NICT believes that the specially developed four-core optical fiber optic cable can be used with existing systems to provide a massive speed boost. Maybe not 319 Tbps, but more than enough to get through Call of Duty.
What’s next? Will Moore’s Law apply to Internet speed? In the next year or two will we double it again?
Oh, yeah. That actually happened. But it didn’t quite double the 319 Tbps.
It was almost 6 times faster.
In late 2022, just a few months ago, a new chip was made by researchers from the University of Copenhagen, Technical University of Denmark (DTU), Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, and Japan’s Fujikura Ltd. Company.
They had their paper published in Nature Photonics, and it said, in part, “We experimentally demonstrate transmission of 1.84 Pbit s–1 over a 37-core, 7.9-km-long fiber using 223 wavelength channels derived from a single microcomb ring resonator producing a stabilized dark-pulse Kerr frequency comb.”
Let me translate: 1.84 Petabits per second is almost twice the entire global Internet traffic per second. So that’s Netflix and everything else in the known World Wide Web at the snap of a finger. Or maybe a click of a switch.
Yes, it is only experimental, not actually a real thing yet, but they know how to get there. Now they just have to figure out not only how to make it a reality, but how all the connections and switches and cables and transceivers can even possibly handle a speed like that.
Now if my phone could just get a signal...