The world was changed forever in the year 1993 when several factors converged to unleash the awesome potential of the commercialization of the Internet.
The first piece was Tim Berners-Lee release of the code that became the non-proprietary World Wide Web in May of 1993. In doing so, he introduced Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) that allowed for the simultaneous transmission of not only text between web browsers, but also images, video, and audio content. At that time, according to Mr. Berners-Lee, only 70 WWW servers existed in the entire world. By December 1994, that number had grown to more than 10,000 servers.
The second major development was the National Information Infrastructure Act of 1993, passed by the U.S. Congress in July of that year. Among the components introduced in the legislation was the requirement that the National Science Foundation (NSF) allow public access to applications of computing and networking advances that had previously only been made available to universities, libraries, and government agencies over the NSF Network or NSFNET. As a result, for the first time, private businesses began to carry much of the traffic between individual browsers in order to use the Internet to sell goods and services.
The final development, and probably the most important ingredient in revolutionizing commercialization of the Internet, was Ciena Corporation’s dense Wave Division Multiplexing (WDM) system. Ciena Corporation, a company co-founded by Kevin Kimberlin and David Huber, and aided by Optelecom, a company co-founded by Gordon Gould, the inventor of the LASER (Light Amplification by Standard Emission of Radiation), capitalized on the potential of Gould’s application for laser-pumped light amplification for Internet communications using light as opposed to sending information over copper wire.
Why The Need For the Optical Amplification?
Prior to the passage of the National Infrastructure Information Act (NIIA), many commercial firms had realized the capacity to sell goods and services over the Internet and built their own Internet network architecture. As a result of the NIIA, these firms could connect with users over the NSF supercomputer system using NFS established protocols.
Sprint was an early leader in terms of carrying traffic for the U.S. Internet. Yet in spite of this leadership position, the World Wide Web and the NSFNET privatization caught even the aggressive planners at Sprint flat-footed. In one year (between 1992 and 1993), the Sprint network utilization rate grew from 55% to 65% and by 1995, certain routes were completely overloaded. It was as if commercial demand created a need for semi trucks to haul information but only one-lane cart paths existed to handle the traffic. Greater bandwidth was called for. Sprint turned to Ciena.
Ciena’s Bandwidth Breakthrough
Ciena Corporation had sprung to life as a result of initial equity investment by affiliates of Spencer Trask & Co. that was followed by the strategic and venture investors that included AT&T Venture affiliates, Siemens AG Venture affiliates, and Sevin Rosen. Spencer Trask then rounded out the start-up funding with a $4.5 million equipment lease financing from Dominion Ventures. Its mission: to develop a system to send information on waves of light.
A key obstacle was the tendency of light to dissipate when transmitted inside even the clearest fiber. To make up for this, a team of 15 engineers, led by Dr. Huber and Ciena CEO Pat Nettles, re-energized the light transmissions with Gordon Gould’s optical amplifier.
Using Huber’s ideas for optical multiplexed sensors and a multiplexed fiber optic wideband data distribution system, the team devised a method to divide the light into slightly different frequencies (colors). Unfortunately, when they tried this multiple amplification trick over long distances, the bluer, shorter waves arrived at the boosting amplifier a few nanoseconds after the redder, longer ones. A cascade of such slightly misaligned frequencies quickly turned the light-encoded message into gibberish.
This posed a perplexing challenge — one that the engineers at Ciena sweated over for months. Finally, they emerged from their lab with the crown jewel of bandwidth expansion: a dual-stage, all-optical amplifier. Correcting the wayward wave shifts with a first amplifier before boosting the signal in a second amplifier, CIENA, for the first time, could transmit enormous amounts of data over transcontinental distances. Ciena’s dual-stage, all-optical amplifier increased bandwidth by orders of magnitude and unleashed the power of light for the “data superhighway.”
The Commercial Internet Was Born
Utilizing Sprint’s fiber-optic network, Ciena’s engineers used the technology of the dual-stage, all-optical amplifier to develop the high-capacity fiber-optic transmission system called Dense Wave Design Multiplexing (DWDM). In that pivotal year of 1993, with only 70 WWW servers in existence, the Internet carried a mere 1% of all telecom traffic. Fifteen years later, it carried 97%. This came about with the adoption of Ciena’s optical amplification and WDM as the common basis of nearly every high capacity metro, regional and long-distance optical system in the world. As a result, almost all communication between humans now travels through the wave multiplexers that light up the backbone of the Information Age and, in large part, fuel the way companies do business today.