Optical Networks Paving the Way to a New, Digital Lifestyle

Optical Networks Paving the Way to a New, Digital Lifestyle

Bernard Lee, Director of Technology and Innovation, Senko Advanced Components | Tuesday, August 03, 2021

I recall one Sunday morning; I was awakened by the sound of a text message on my phone. As I squinted without my glasses, I was delighted to read the message“Please be informed that your appointment for the 1st dose of the COVID-19 vaccine has been scheduled.” Excited, I swiftly returned to the home screen of my phone and activated my ‘MySejahtera’ app, an application developed by the Malaysian government to manage various aspects of life during the pandemic: from vaccine appointments to just registering your whereabouts for contact tracing purposes. As expected, I can see all the details of the appointment such as the date, time, and venue listed in the app. And on the day of the vaccination, the whole process is recorded using the app—no pen and paper, no website portals. All the information is updated instantaneously.

Prior to the pandemic, lives were somewhat on a gradual steady pace towards digitalization with new apps and software being introduced regularly to make our lives a little more convenient every day. From doing online shopping to the dreaded monthly submission of expense claims to the accounting department, our daily lives were slowly but surely taking on the convenience made possible by digital technology. Nevertheless, the use of such applications was still a ‘choice’ of convenience. Since December 2019, it is no longer a ‘convenience’, it has become a necessity. It is as if our lives have been suddenly thrust into a digitalization hyperdrive. What we thought would take years or even decades to reach mass adoption became a reality in a matter of weeks. From teleconferencing, virtual collaborative workforce, and e-learning, we were ‘forced’ into adopting a digitized lifestyle; again, not by choice but by necessity in order to continue our daily functions.

Living in the Klang Valley in Malaysia, I have been one of the luckier people as back in 2008, the government of Malaysia invested approximated four billion US dollars into a project to bring fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) to approximately over a million homes, one of them being my home. Working in Telekom Malaysia then, I was very fortunate to be part of the High-Speed Broadband (HSBB) project, from its inception to its completion in late 2009. Throughout the multiple lockdowns in the country and international travel restrictions, disruption to my work and family live has been ‘tolerable’. Face-to-face meetings are replaced with video conferencing using software such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and Webex among others and my children are becoming accustomed to attending online classes and submitting ‘homework’ via Google Classroom. This pandemic was not only a test of humanity, but it is also a test on my life’s work for the past 20 years, the resilience and performance of optical networks.

Optical networks are not new to the world. Since the invention of optical fibre for communication by the late Prof Charles Kao back in the 1970s, engineers have been weaving optical fibres across the globe. Of course, building an optical network is not done overnight. Back in the late 1990s before the burst of the internet bubble, optical networking was mostly limited to interconnecting continents along submarine networks and metro area networks. As the cost of optical equipment and components became more economical in the early 2000s, the term ‘optical network’ started to also encompass access networks, which brought optical connections to the consumers at home. Thus, the deployment of FTTH (Fiber-to-the-Home) became incredibly important that multiple governments funded national ‘fiberization’ plans. Today, the word ‘optical network’ is associated with any high-speed networks supporting various technologies, ranging from wireless 4G and 5G to Cloud “mega” data centres around the world, which make our daily lives possible.

Is this the end game for optical networks? Apparently, not. Now, optical networks have a new meaning. It has interconnected continents, countries, cities, and even our homes, the next frontier of optical networks will range from hundreds of meters interconnecting large numbers of sensors and control systems in Smart Cities (Internet of Things) and Factories of the Future (Industrial Internet of Things), tens of meters interconnecting sensors and cameras in automobiles and other smart vehicles to on-board computers, a few centimeters, replacing copper traces on printed circuit boards for the next generations of ultra-high-speed switches and supercomputers, ultimately down to mere millimetres and microns as microchips themselves are used to manipulate light.

We have moved from optical fibres as the ‘highway’ of optical networks interconnecting continents to microscopic optical ‘waveguides’ interconnecting transistors on a chip. The paradigm of the word ‘optical network’ has shifted again, introducing new opportunities to the industry. It is amazing to think back in the past decade, where we have seen one of the fastest developments of optical networking technology since the late 1990s, one might say it is a Golden Age for optics. The technology is not only faster but also more reliable and cost-effective as more people adopt optics. In some instances, technologies developed back in the 1990s, which were deemed too early or too costly then, are seeing a rebirth now.

Will this trend continue? Will optical networks continue to flourish indefinitely? I think so, but the real question is,‘how fast will it grow?’ I suppose it all depends on the world’s appetite for a new ‘digital lifestyle’ powered by an optical network infrastructure.

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