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Flashback: The Infinity Pipe

Today Internet service providers forecast speeds of 10 gigabits as the next big step up in bandwidth, followed by multiple channels carrying 10 gigabits.

Looking back at our October 1986 issue, “The Infinity Pipe,” you could put that in the perspective of an Alabama on the threshold of the fiberoptic infrastructure.

Driving bandwidth demand today are all of the services and devices now connected to the Internet, but back in 1986 it was telephones that plowed the fiberoptic furrows. 

Southland Systems, of Atmore, was the first on line, with a long distance fiberoptic cable from Mobile to Tallahassee, Florida. AT&T closely followed in October 1986, with a fiberoptic connection linking Birmingham with Atlanta.

That was just three years after Disney World’s Epcot Center became the first commercial venture in the country to install a fiberoptic system.

Voice service was the only thing speeding along Alabama’s first fiberoptic cables, but much more was looming on the horizon.

“Faced with the prospects of a brave new world flush with digital devices, personal computers, main-frame terminals, word processors and digital PBXs, telephone companies have been adapting their networks to these functions,” our story explained.

Laying the fiberoptic bundles was a pricey investment, but obligatory, considering the tsunami of data demand rolling in. Once laid, the fiberoptic cable could be boosted without additional real estate cost by improving the technology, especially the lasers, that drove the traffic over the line. The earliest lines transmitted about 45 megabits (million pulses per second), ramping up to 560 megabits in three years. The capacity for increased speed seemed infinite.

“In looking at all of the electronics potential, capacities are increasing and unit costs are going down. And at the same time our fixed costs will remain relatively insensitive to change,” said Jim Corman, president of Southland Systems, Alabama’s first fiberoptic operator.

(Corman, who now teaches entrepreneurship at Auburn University, after a career as a serial entrepreneur, is head of the Angel Investor Management Group, an umbrella organization for Alabama’s local angel investor groups.)

Chris McFadyen is the editorial director of Business Alabama.

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