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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

THE INTERNET

Japan to Wire the World
And its scientists set a record in transmission speed

By Robert Dietz and
Murakami Mutsuko / Tokyo


KILOBITS. MEGABITS. GIGABITS. AND now,terabits. That is "tera," as in 1 trillion. Two Japanese research laboratories -- one affiliated with computer maker Fujitsu and the other with Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT) -- announced last month that they had succeeded in sending 1 trillion bits or more of information a second through fiber optic cables. In a real world application, that is about 15 million times faster than the 64,000 bits -- 64 kilobits -- a second you are most likely getting from your home or office telephone line. "It has been a long-time dream for all optical researchers to reach the terabit per second mark," says Kuwahara Hideo, one of the 20 researchers at the Fujitsu lab. "We achieved it about one year earlier than we expected."

And to think that only in January, the Japanese government was talking about transmissions of 156 million bits -- 156 megabits -- a second for the Internet. It proposed a worldwide distribution system called GIBN -- Global Interoperability for Broadband Networks -- at a Paris meeting of telecommunications officials from the world's seven richest industrial countries. The project will tap existing undersea fiber optic cables and communications satellites to transmit information some 100 times faster than currently possible. That means high-fidelity audio signals, smooth-as-television moving images and high definition graphics -- sent and received in real time.

The terabit breakthrough potentially amplifies GIBN possibilities thousands of times. Of the two labs, Fujitsu achieved the fastest transmission rate of 1.1 terabits per second, which were sent 150 kilometers over a single strand of optical fiber. The computer maker managed to simultaneously transmit 55 wavelengths and came up with a way of amplifying the light signals every 50 kilometers, since light pulses degrade over long stretches and must be strengthened. Fujitsu has developed a new generation of portable and cheaper signal amplifiers.

The advantage of the rival NTT technique, says Saruwatari Masatoshi, a senior researcher at the company's Optical Network Systems Laboratories, is that it uses only a single light source. "Installing so many optical sources is not very practical," he says of Fujitsu's 55 wavelengths. The NTT process involves a "super continuum" device that generates very short signals spanning light's entire spectrum. Ten wavelengths each carry 100 billion bits -- 100 gigabits -- of information. The researchers were able to send a total of 1 terabit of data 40 kilometers.

What does all this mean for you? When terabit technology becomes viable, you can send and receive virtually instantaneous and high-quality images over the Internet. You will no longer have to wait for minutes while your computer scrolls down a picture or graphic. Multiple video images can zap onto your screen faster than the text pages you see now. And video-on-demand will become a genuine service, sending to your television or computer the film you want to see the instant you make the request.

Terabit research has a long way to go, particularly on overseas transmissions. Meanwhile, Japan's GIBN is setting up an experimental 156 megabit link between Kyushu University and Cleveland Clinic in the U.S., making possible online consultation -- even advice about on-going surgery. By 1997 or 1998, Japan's Ministry of Post and Telecommunications predicts, the system will be in practical use. Get ready to buy some new computer hardware.


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