Over land, under sea, the race is on to 'glass wire' the globe
Call Europe on pulses of light? By the late 1980s it should become routine. Later this month an international consortium will choose a company to lay a fiber-optic cable linking the United States with England and France.
The long-planned cable project, which will carry messages by light waves instead of electricity, will provide a stiff new challenge to satellites and traditional undersea copper wires for a share of the international telecommunications market.
The glass wire will probably have no major immediate effect on the quality and cost of overseas telephone calls. But its emergence underscores the accelerating pace of development of fiber-optic communications - a technology that will eventually affect what services come into your home or office.
With fiber optics, information is transmitted by rapid pulses of laser light shot through hairlike strands of ultrapure glass. The threads carry vastly more phone calls than commonly used copper wires. Glass cables are also free of the weather interference or irksome echoes that often hamper satellite systems. Another trump card: The gossamer webs can carry voice, video, and data signals, which equip them to handle future electronic information chores.
For these reasons, the race to lay glass communication pathways on land has been picking up in earnest. American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T) has strung some 100,000 miles of the wispy strands across the US; the company is laying a 776-mile trunk from Massachusetts to Virginia, among others.
But it faces mounting competition from MCI and a host of other communications companies. There's reason for them to be rubbing their hands: Worldwide sales of fiber-optic components, now about $550 million a year, are expected to reach $3 billion by 1989, according to Kessler Marketing Intelligence, a Rhode Island market research firm.
Yet pulsing messages through fibers under the ocean will be trickier. The $ 300 million-to-$450 million system envisioned to link North America with Great Britain and Europe will have to stretch some 3,500 miles and withstand extreme pressures. Unlike land-based optical-fiber systems, repair crews won't be able to lift up a manhole cover and fix a problem, should one occur.
Vying to lay the system are AT&T, Britain's Standard Telephone & Cable, and France's Cie General d'Electricite. A winner may be picked in mid-November by the international consortium of communications equipment makers and utilities.
Some analysts give the edge to AT&T, which has tested a light wave system at 18,000-foot ocean depths. Whichever system - or combination of them - is chosen, it will be sorely needed by the time the first light waves are sent across the ocean in 1988. For the past 20 years, telephone traffic between the US and Europe - now 160 million calls annually - has been increasing by more than 20 percent a year.
At present, the calls are relayed by satellite and carried by six coaxial cables. The consortium believes the optical fiber system will be competitive with both. It has several other advantages over copper cable:
* Greater carrying capacity. The best coaxial cables transmit about 8,500 conversations at once. The optical material will carry 40,000 over a twin pair of fibers.
* Fewer costly ''repeaters.'' With coaxial systems, amplifiers are needed to boost the signal every five miles. They can be spaced every 20 miles with optical-fiber systems.
* Tamperproof communications. Because signals are sent by light wave, eavesdroppers cannot tap high-security communications.
''We are reaching the end of a generation with copper cables,'' says Jack Sipress, director of the undersea systems laboratory at AT&T's Bell Laboratories in Holmdel, N.J.
The transatlantic link is only one of many glass cables expected to girdle the globe by century's end. On the drawing board are plans for lines from Hawaii to the continental US and Japan. Others are being discussed between the US and Latin America.
Optical fibers look good as information conduits between heavily trafficked nations accessible by sea. But in more remote and thinly settled regions, satellites and microwave will probably be the predominant carriers, analysts say.
Hindering any cable system is the heavy expense of laying the lines. On land, US companies are trying to be more pennywise by stringing optical fibers along railroads. At least four railway companies have teamed up with communications enterprises in recent months to turn their rights of way into data transmission highways. Carriers of commerce in the Industrial Revolution, the railroads are slowly becoming conduits for ideas in the information revolution.
Still, none of these high-tech highways - on land or under sea - will affect the average consumer soon. Most land-based light wave systems are now being used to link busy telephone switching stations in urban areas. The biggest changes will come when the glass fibers are strung into homes and businesses. Ambitious experiments to do this are under way in several countries, principally France and Japan. But it will be at least 1987 before ''glass wiring'' even begins to reach many US homes, predicts Frank Dixon, an analyst with Gnostic Concepts Inc. , a California market research firm.
When optic fibers do reach homes and workplaces, they will will help usher in the so-called electronic cottage. They will be able to carry televised phone conversations, computer-to-computer hookups (allowing, among other things, home schooling and shopping), and high-quality television pictures. Then the only question: Will society be ready for it?