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Will wireless technology mean the end of cable?

09 January 2018

The future might be all about wireless technology, but even the most advanced devices rely on an infrastructure of cable to function, says Simon Hopkins, a member of the Future Thinking Team at Prysmian UK.

With the rise of wireless technology, it might seem possible for us to ditch the excess commodity cable that can be such an unsightly part of our homes or workplaces.

However, wireless devices don’t necessarily herald the end for cable. It’s important to remember that the power and communications networks that actually run the modern world continue to rely on cable – and that isn’t going to change anytime soon!

Communications Cables
When we pick up our mobile phones we think of them as wireless communications devices, but we should remember that the mobile network itself isn’t mobile.

When we use our phone, its radio signal is converted at the nearest base station to an optical signal that then travels to its destination through fixed fibre optic cable before being converted back into a radio signal at the point of final delivery.

This network of fibre optic cables is a state-of-the-art global communications technology on which all of our internet-based communications rely.

The simple reason is that no wireless system can match the capacity, speed or reliability of fibre optic cable.

Facebook and Microsoft have jointly funded the new transatlantic Marea cable, which has a maximum throughput of 160 terabits per second. Microsoft claims it to be 16 million times faster than the average home internet connection and capable of streaming 71 million high-definition videos simultaneously.

These companies are not investing in a soon-to-be-obsolete infrastructure. Rather, they see this type of cable-based network as the foundation for a predicted explosion in cloud-based technologies.

At a more local level, the rise of the so-called ‘internet of things’ – used to describe the network of connections between physical devices, vehicles, home appliances and other items – will increase the need for efficient broadband cables to every home.

Equally, the introduction of ever more capacity to smart phones is resulting in the installation of more antennas on every street – a process that will be hastened considerably by the introduction of 5G. All of this needs to be connected to both the power and communications infrastructure using (you guessed it) cable.

Power Cables
While there are techniques that allow for power and electricity to be transmitted without wires, these are also challenges which come down to physics and engineering.

Most of us will have encountered household devices that can be charged wirelessly – electric toothbrushes or phone chargers for example. These devices both use a system where power is transferred by magnetic fields and both rely on proximity to the power sources for their effect – a power source that is, naturally, connected to the grid.

Again, we have the illusion of mobility, of wire-free operation, but it its really only a convenience for the user.  

Delivering electrical power from the point of generation to the point of use remains the function of the national transmission and distribution network and it continues to rely on ever-more-efficient cable to carry out that function.

The increasing reliance on renewable energy sources tends to mean transmitting power over long distances with the use of cable, while the potential development of a decentralised power supply network utilising local power generation is likely to require cable to deliver excess energy back in to the national electricity grid.

In short, it is difficult to imagine a system that does not rely on a physical infrastructure of cable. We may operate in an increasingly mobile environment with work and entertainment delivered to us via mobile devices, but there is no sign yet that the transport network for this vast quantity of energy and data to a rapidly increasing plethora of devices will be provided by anything other than cable. 

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