The Speed Limits of Communication

Information has speed limits. Those of us who are old enough to remember trying to access the internet over a dial-up connection will remember the frustration of waiting for information to appear, one line at a time.

For centuries, the speed of information was limited by the methods available to deliver it. This was usually how fast a horse could be ridden or how quickly a ship could sail. The modern marathon race commemorates the legend of the soldier who ran to Athens to tell the news of the victory of their army over the invading Persians. Whether the legend has any truth to it is immaterial, but what is true is that there would simply have been no quicker way of getting the information to those who needed it.


The Pony Express - the internet of the Wild West
Image: US Post Office​

Information and Empire

Time and again throughout history, the speed of information had shaped societies and governments. The administration of empires from the Roman to the British had to be conducted in a way that made allowances for the slow speed of communications. Regional governors were gifted with a huge amount of power for the simple reason that they could not wait for instructions from the central government because a message might take weeks or even months to receive a reply.

Many cultures have created methods for communicating over long distances more quickly, whether visually or aurally. The term “smoke signals” has entered everyday language, certainly in the English-speaking parts of the world, and is testament to the innovation of the Native American tribes who used smoke signals to communicate across the American plains. Made famous by the Aboriginal tribes of Australia, the bullroarer is a musical instrument that has been used for centuries to communicate over large distances. The distinctive noise created by a bullroarer can be heard over many miles.

Communications get a boost

The invention of the electric telegraph revolutionized the field of modern communications. Signals could be sent over wires virtually instantaneously between two stations. With this development, the limits on the speed of communication changed subtly from how fast the data could be carried between sender and receiver to how quickly the data could be processed. As the telegraph depended on operators at each end transmitting and receiving the information, the speed depended on the skill of these individuals. Additionally, the infrastructure around the telegraph imposed its own delays. A message received at the telegraph office still needed to be carried to the recipient, which once again depended on horse- or leg-power.

Still, this invention altered the face of society. Suddenly, the far-flung outposts of empire could expect answers in days rather than the weeks. Everything from news reporting to the conduct of warfare was changed forever.

If we were to measure the data rate in bits per second as we do nowadays, the speed of communications that telegraphy delivered was still painfully slow. Even when more direct means of communication were introduced – the wireless telegraph and later the telephone – data could only be sent at the speed that it could be received and processed at the other end. The actual data rate did not improve for almost a century.

The 80s just called...

The age of the computer has finally raised the speed limit of data as machines talk to each other, but even this has been a long process. When I first watched the 1983 movie WarGames, I watched in awe as the main character connected his home computer to the Department of Defense via a telephone line. My only exposure to computers at that time was playing games on a friend’s ZX Spectrum, so the idea of using a modem to communicate with another computer was truly science fiction. Looking back over 35 years of history, we can see how even this technology was slow, depending as it did on the clicks and squeals of an audio telephone line.


...they want their modem back!
Image: Secretlondon

However, this was an example of the next stage of communications – machines talking to each other. Once this became commonplace, the limitations on the speed of information became software and hardware related. As semiconductors grew in power and capability, the limits imposed on the information being shared between computers focused on the cables and connectors.

I attended a lecture in 1996, just as structured wiring became the new buzzword in computer networking. I was conducting research for my employer about the products we should invest in to satisfy customer demands. At the time, 100 Megabits per second was the goal for computer networking, but the cabling was already restricting further developments. An “industry expert” stood at the podium and confidently told us that traditional copper-based electric cable, even in its sophisticated screened, twisted pair (STP) configuration, was approaching the limits of its capabilities.

Transmitting high-speed signals over copper wires is not a simple exercise. The physics of how the electrons travel through the conductor is more complicated than I can understand. But luckily, there are some talented engineers out there who do understand, and who don’t listen to “industry experts” telling them that certain things are not possible.

Communications - The New Era

We are entering yet another new phase of information. Thanks to the efforts of these engineers, the medium through which the signals travel – the network of connectors and cables – is no longer the limit to data speed. Connector companies like US manufacturer Samtec have released products that are capable of handling data at speeds of up to 112 Gigabits per second, using PAM4 techniques.

Connectors like the NovaRay® with its 112 Gbps PAM4 speed, are now capable of transmitting data at speed faster than most semiconductors can generate them. The rapid growth in the fields of supercomputing, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) means that some semiconductor companies are working on chipsets that are capable of such speeds, but few have yet been released into the market. Samtec is continuously developing the product portfolio so that once 112 Gbps PAM4 chipsets are commonplace, the Samtec range will be delivering even faster speeds.

For virtually the first time in history, it is no longer the method of transmission that is imposing speed limits on information. By removing the restrictions placed on how quickly data can be delivered, products like NovaRay® from Samtec are opening up the future to the development of true supercomputing and AI.

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