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A new device designed by garrett Cole and Qi Chen at the University of California, Santa Barbara, could help bring fiber-optic connections – and the massive doses of bandwidth they provide – to home Internet users. The device is an inexpensive amplifier that could be used to boost data signals in the critical “last mile” of fiber-optic cable running between a home or neighborhood and the telecom backbone. One of the major hurdles in telecommunications has been the cost of existing amplifiers, such as the sophisticated devices used in the backbone. But the new amplifier can be fabricated the same way computer chips are, without any mechanical assembly, so it promises to be much cheaper. What’s more, it’s tunable, like a radio dial, so it can compensate for changes in light frequency that confound other inexpensive amplifiers. “If a company were to show interest,” says Cole, “it should take only a few years to develop a commercial device.”

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