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IBM's 160-Gbps Optical Chipset Is A Long Way Off

It's more likely the chipset will serve optical transport networks before they speed up movie downloads, one analyst argues.

IBM is getting ready to showcase its sophisticated optical chipset at the 2007 Optical Fiber Conference on Thursday in Anaheim, Calif. The chipset is no doubt a breakthrough since it will improve the rate at which businesses and consumers can access data, but industry experts predict it could take years before it reaches the masses.

IBM scientists first unveiled a prototype of the chipset -- called an optical transceiver -- earlier this week, claiming it's capable of reaching speeds at least eight times faster than optical components available today. The chipset has the ability to move information at speeds of 160 Gbps, or 160 billion bits of information in a single second, IBM said.

The chipset could be integrated onto printed circuit boards, allowing components within a PC or set-top box to communicate more quickly by enhancing their performance. If used in consumer set-top boxes, it could reduce the download time of large multimedia files like full-length movies from 30 minutes to a single second.

Researchers are looking for ways to make optical signals more practical since the amount of data being transmitted over computer networks is increasing. IBM says its chipset could address the problem by offering "previously unheard of amounts of bandwidth and enhanced signal fidelity." But that doesn't mean businesses and consumers will be able to gain access to 160 Gbps of bandwidth. "That will likely never happen," says Jason Marcheck, an analyst at Current Analysis.

A more realistic outlook: Optical transport networks could dramatically improve data transfer rates, as more people start requesting on-demand content. Optical networking speeds up the flow of data using light pulses, instead of sending electrons over wires.

From a timing perspective, 160-Gbps optical transport systems are still a long way off, since 40-Gbps links are only now starting to achieve any kind of deployment scale and 100-Gbps links are next on the path, says Marcheck.

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