Japan's Computer and Communications Industry: The Evolution of Industrial Giants and Global Competitiveness

By Martin Fransman | Go to book overview

APPENDIX 2 The Evolution of Optical Fibre in Corning Glass

Introduction

This appendix contains a detailed analysis of the evolution of optical fibre technology in Corning. It explains why it was Corning that made the breakthrough in 1970 when researchers produced an optical fibre with a loss rate below 20 decibels per kilometre (dB/km), making optical fibre for the first time viable as a telecommunications transmissions medium. The analysis also examines the complementary technologies that were needed for optical-fibre-based transmission systems and discusses the further improvements made in optical fibre in the early 1970s.


Expected Payoffs to Research on Optical Fibre

In this section we go back to the mid- 1960s, before the main breakthroughs in optical fibre for communications were made, in order to reconstruct the expected payoffs that potential producers and users of optical fibre thought might follow from their investments in research and development in this area. It is these expected payoffs that guided the allocation of resources to research on optical fibre in a context where functioning copper cable, microwave radio, and satellite systems provided viable alternative transmissions media.

Within the telecommunications network, transmissions constituted what T. P. Hughes has called a 'reverse salient'.1 More than a simple physical constraint or bottleneck, transmissions technology was perceived by those building and operating telecommunications systems as a strategic weakness in much the same way that a military strategist might analyse a weakness in the battlelines (reverse salient being a concept drawn from a military context). Simply put, throughout the 1960s the demand for telephone lines increased rapidly, as did central office switching capacity, with the introduction of new electronic switching systems. The ability of the total telecommunications system to expand, however, was seriously limited by the transmission sub-system. Consisting largely of installed copper cables, the carrying capacity of this sub-system could not be readily and cost-effectively be increased, and as time went on new services such as data communications, facsimile, and video all demanded increasing bandwidth capacity. Accordingly, strategic attention was focused on possible

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1
T. P. Hughes, Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1984.

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