When it comes to bringing internet to the masses, we’ve seen it all lately. Google has already begun testing on Project Loon, their balloon-powered internet endeavor. Elon Musk’s SpaceX is immersed in secret planning to bring a constellation of internet-broadcasting satellites to fruition. Even Samsung is working on their own system of Low Earth Orbit satellites to help add speed and in-house reliability to their own networks. This week, Facebook finally released more details about how they plan to bring their laser-based internet to the underserved areas that currently need it most.
The key to successful laser internet, in a word, is fluorescence. Facebook’s Connectivity Lab, whose main purpose is to find and develop technology that puts high-speed internet into the hands of underserved communities, showcased their findings earlier this week in the scientific journal Optica. According to their research, the use of fluorescent optical fibers to collect light rather than traditional optics has led to a breakthrough in terms of feasibility. Basically, since the optical fibers don’t emit the same color they’re absorbing, a brighter light can be shined at them. This creates a much faster turnaround time than previous methods provided, at just under two nanoseconds. Plus, this new receiver technology would be far less complex and more affordable than the systems we rely on currently. Since free-space laser communication takes place in the visible or infrared spectrum, it wouldn’t require mechanical stabilization, expensive micro-motors, sensing, or processing. This in turn leads to a system that is less susceptible to interference from neighboring frequencies.
In the quest to develop effective laser-based communications, there have been several hurdles to jump along the way. First off, working with light and optics over great distances is notoriously unpredictable, as noise, interference, and various other physical and environmental factors can be disruptive. So in order to successfully transmit data through light, the terminal signal point has to be optimized for the collection of information. This is where the luminescent detector comes in. A bundle of optical fibers are joined together and then treated with an organic dye which absorbs blue light and, in turn, emits green light. Blue laser light enters the broad end of the optical fiber bundle, where it is then converted to green light and funneled down to the photo-diode at the narrow end. Using this method, engineers claim that they have hit speeds greater than 2 Gbps with their innovative working prototype.
There are still several kinks to work through to bring laser-based communications to the masses. However, most of the problems lie in drone technology; not the lasers themselves. Most notable is the “twinkling” effect, experienced when atmospheric turbulence causes optical fluctuations that typically result in signal fading. Plus, the battery life of the drone crafts in their current iterations will be an important factor for researchers to take into account. Not to mention that the paper directly addresses “the need for new material tailored for communication applications” – the needed materials for mass production simply don’t exist right now. Nevertheless, we are one giant leap closer to laser-based internet this week than we were the week before. And since visible and infrared frequencies don’t come with the same imposing regulations as standard WiFi, skipping the arduous step of gaining government and federal agency approval could bring Project Aquila’s laser internet to the globe much sooner than you think.
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