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Turning Copper Into Gold

by: Scott English

I recall, back in the early 90s, being gathered with fellow, scruffy technicians in the small conference room of a Mountain Bell garage. We were intently listening to a regional manager (about five levels up) giving us a "state-of-the-network" type of speech. He was a cocksure sort of guy with bright multi-colored tennis shoes, jeans, and a polo shirt--not the gray slacks and blue blazer I was expecting. Although he spoke at length, I only remember his first statement: " We have reached the limit of copper. We will never get more than 56k out of it."

Well, that was disturbing to hear. What does that mean? Will we go out of business someday? Will I lose my job? Will progress come to a halt? Will an innovative competitor move in and knock us off the top of the hill? It was not pleasant news. I instinctively knew that. I believe my fellow employees were as confused as I was.

The 56k limit was untrue. Thanks to some very bright engineers, the bandwidth that copper was able to carry kept growing and well beyond 56k! Faster ISDN came on the scene followed by different flavors of DSL. The progress never stopped, and here we are more than 30 years later moving massive amounts of bandwidth over copper wires. I'm not talking about high-performance data cables but plain old telephone wires.

xDSL was a good option if you didn't have access to cable Internet. It sufficed for email, texting, and if you were close enough to the central office, you could stream video. But demand for more bandwidth grew, and xDSL grew with it. Although 12-24 Mbps became common, even that was outgrown. However, the engineers kept working hard.

Here we are in 2020, and gigabit speeds over plain old telephone wire using VDSL2 are possible, depending on the distance from the source. When we put the source in your basement or in your data closet, we greatly shorten the distance. That translates into speeds of between 150 and 1000 Mbps! Properties that have existing telephone wiring under 1500 feet can see speeds over 200 Mbps to each user and even higher with shorter wires.

There truly is a goldmine of copper out there, and that includes copper cabling more than 50 years old. It's everywhere, waiting to have life breathed into it again.

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