The next generation of wireless tech, 5G, promises a frictionless future: We’ll be able to do whatever we do on our phones much, much faster, and more devices can come online without slowing down the works. Self-driving cars, smart meters that track electricity usage, and health-monitoring devices may all take a big leap from childhood to adolescence.
5G will happen in the airy realm of radio waves. To get there, big telecoms have to harness underused parts of the spectrum. But there’s another crucial part underlying this system: lowly cable. Huge numbers of new transmitters will be needed to relay all that data to your phone, and many of those transmitters will still connect to the internet through fiber-optic cable—glass as thin as strands of hair carrying pulses of light.
To make it all work, companies, including OFS Optics, a fiber-optics and cable company, are now being commissioned to produce millions of miles of new cable holding twice as many fiber pairs—two strands, one for the uplink and one for the downlink—as the old stuff.
The WIRED Guide to 5G
In each cable are the glass fibers, which are unspooled using a device called a payoff machine. At OFS, these machines are massive—6 feet tall, 25 feet long, and 4 feet wide. Color coding lets technicians know which fibers to splice when connecting two cables. When displayed on giant bobbins at the OFS cable factory in Carrollton, Georgia, the fibers create an unintentional artist’s palette of yellow, coral, aqua, forest green, and gray. The glass fibers are then laced through weather-resistant buffer tubes and swaddled in strong synthetic aramid yarn to protect the inner workings. The final step of production involves applying a black sheath made of durable polyethylene. A finished fiber-optic cable can be up to 30,000 feet long, or more than 5 miles.
Out in the world, these cables may be draped along utility poles or hidden in shallow trenches under city streets. Enormous lengths of cable carry the internet under the oceans between continents. In those places, mostly unseen, they may one day connect your 5G-enabled device and beam you into the future.
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