Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Who killed Trellis Photonics and is Verizon next?

Death in Ft. Meade

Trellis Photonics. I think it has a nice ring to it, like Setec Astronomy. I first learned of this company and their products in the summer of 2001, when I was working as an investment banking analyst at Robertson Stephens. TP made "electroholographic switches": solid chunks of metal with no moving parts that could perform dense wave division multiplexing at the speed of light.

The company was headquartered in Columbia, Maryland, and had manufacturing facilities in Jerusalem and the suburbs of Haifa. Financially, the company was backed by a syndicate lead by Goldman Sachs, with investment from the Carlyle Group and, I am not making this up, Enron.

The technology “involve[d] writing a holographic Bragg grating on a photorefractive crystal (such as potassium lithium tantalum niobate).” (Source). The technique resulted in switching time on the order of 10 nanoseconds, approximately 300x faster than current technology. Unlike conventional routers, electroholographic switches would not need to convert the light into electrons, and would require minimal inspection of the data being transmitted. Just bounce the light off the mathematically-calculated hologram, and it will reflect itself down the right tube.

There was just one problem: it never worked, we are to believe. The company folded in an orderly and thoroughly unremarkable manner.

Who's Next?

Perhaps there is another way to accelerate telecom development. In the United States, there are approximately 250 million landlines and 250 million cellular phone lines. If every phone line carries a half hour of conversation per day, and an hour of voice can be compressed into 10 megabytes, we transmit and receive about 2.5 terrabytes of data per day, or 29 gigabytes per second (on average). Of course, people don’t make phone calls when sleeping, and sometimes behavior can be very clumpy (think Mother’s Day). If we conservatively estimate that voice consumption spikes as high as 20x average, we would need about 600 gigabytes per second of bandwith capacity.

We could provide voice communications for free to everyone in the country using 1.2 million 802.11b wireless routers using 10-year old technology, or using 120,000 802.11g routers (that are only five years old). With the advent of 4G WiMax and corresponding improvements in WiFi? , the physical infrastructure that supports the “natural” monopoly of telecommunications may become largely obsolete.

In 2008, Verizon made 48 of its 100 billion in revenue from wireline services. It made a total of six billion in profit, and it has fifty billion in debt outstanding, on top of thirty billion in retiree obligations. In a world without cables and wires, what do they have to sell?

This Phone Kills Fascists

June 13, 2009 saw millions take to the streets of Iran in protest of rigged elections. The events that followed were leaked to the rest of the world via Twitter, an otherwise asinine social media site designed for many-to-many communication in 144 characters or less. This was not the first revolution to be tweeted, but it was probably the most significant in its impact on the world to date. Its beauty was that it allowed everyone with a cellular phone to become reporters, and its strength in the numbers of followers who, blessed in their naivete, expected fair elections. While the diffuse and polymorphic information topology created by a mix of cellular phones, satellite uplinks, and pseudonymous social media proved difficult for censors to navigate, it was not impossible. The Iranian state deliberately crafted their communications network to all route through a single point, where they could (theoretically, at least) micromanage the flow of information through the country.

Residents of most Western countries don't view their government and its control of telecommunications in the same light as Iran. Even when they read about warrantless wiretapping in the New York Times and its use to exert influence on key members of congress, they remain happy to pay seventy dollars a month for wireless phones whose workings they don't begin to understand. People trust that nobody is listening to their calls (because they're not important enough, because they have nothing to hide) if they think about the subject at all, which they probably don't. But, once new technologies get a little more developed, and older technologies become more widespread and even cheaper, maybe it won't matter. In a self-organizing peer-to-peer network without backbones and last miles, where can anyone listen in?


Webs Webs

r6 - 05 Jan 2010 - 21:53:25 - IanSullivan
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