Laying down the line

With huge projects to circle the globe in fiber optic cable, some question if much of the construction is needed

Rick MacInnis is a builder of cities and superhighways. He has spent his professional life constructing bridges, subways, and neck-craning skyscrapers.

Mr. MacInnis's latest project, however, comes in a much smaller package: tiny cables stuffed with glass and plastic.

As the head of an effort to establish a global optical network, his task appears simple. "I keep telling everyone it's just digging ditches and throwing in cable."

But the scale of the project - a total of 20,700 miles across the US and into Europe - is immense. And there's no guarantee it will yield a profit.

Telecommunications company Level 3, MacInnis's employer, is just one of a dozen outfits racing to distribute cable all over the globe. Each hopes to promote its network as the quickest path to send digital information.

Some experts celebrate the networks as the next generation of globe-shrinking transportation projects, like railroads and Interstate highways, which recast the boundaries of time and space. But others argue the building is getting out of hand, and question whether companies aren't overestimating America's thirst for souped-up Internet service.

Millions of miles of tubes are now criss-crossing the earth, stuffed with fibers that transform digital data - like an e-mail or telephone conversation - into light, and shoot the information across the globe at lightning-fast speeds. (Most cables are buried along railways, highway medians, and even at the bottom of the ocean.)

Because optical networks can store hundreds of thousands of times more bandwidth than microwave transmitters and satellites, they are widely considered the best transportation platform for the Web of the future. Internet service providers pay networks like Level 3 billions of dollars so their customers can send information almost anywhere - and quickly.

Optical networks are not new. AT&T and GTE deployed the first fibers in 1977. But they were solely used for long-distance telephone service. Their stock rose at the dawn of the Internet age, however, when it became apparent that regular phone lines didn't have the muscle to deliver video, data, and voice at high speeds.

Relaxed telecommunications laws passed in the 1990s opened the floodgates to new builders. According to Newport, R.I.-based research firm KMI, 78 million miles of cable are now in place. About 20 million were set down last year alone.

A key discovery called dense wavelength division multiplexing (DWDM) is fueling much of the growth. It enabled carriers to increase the carrying capacity of one fiber to 160 individual channels or wavelengths, each of which can carry a discreet stream of information (e.g. 160 e-mails simultaneously). With DWDM, storage capacity of optical networks doubles every nine months - half the time it takes for similar innovation in computer chips.

Advances notwithstanding, not everyone in the industry believes the powerful networks will be necessary. They argue that much of the current construction is unwarranted. Most of the building is in anticipation of growing Internet traffic and an increasing interest in richer online media, like full-length movies and Internet radio.

But with the collapse of a number of dot-com companies this winter, some argue the momentum for online entertainment is waning. The point is bolstered by evidence that consumers have been slow to enhance their home Internet hookups.

The Boston-based market research firm Adventis, for one, estimates that 40 percent of existing fiber capacity in the US, and 65 percent in Europe, will go unused in 2004.

Despite the warnings, most of the networks continue to build. (Each day, enough cable is laid to circle the earth three times.)

The result for regular Internet users will be dramatic improvements in the speed of their Internet access - and at lower costs. It's likely to make the Internet an even more ubiquitous part of our lives.

MacInnis will experience the difference firsthand with his 14-year-old son. "He's big into computers. And I know that all of that stuff requires bandwidth," says MacInnis. "[The new optical networks] have the capacity to carry all this stuff so the kids can carry on with the technology."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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