It’s 2020, and the Gernsbacks have settled into their new home. Dad is watching football on the flat-panel screen in his home theater, but he isn’t satisfied with standard broadcasts. The Custom SuperView channel lets him select four current or instant-replay views from any of a dozen high-definition cameras stationed around the stadium. Mom is upstairs working, using telepresence to control a robot cleaning up a toxic waste site in New Jersey. Their teenage son is playing three-dimensional chess with a friend in Paris; a supercomputer in New York calculates the data used to show the pieces on their digital holographic displays. His sister, meanwhile, is practicing with a choir made up of people who live in a dozen cities in North and South America; a computer in Mexico City merges their voices and transmits the music back to their computers in real time, while creating an array of their faces on a single screen.
Some of this technology can be found in well-equipped laboratories today, but not in homes. Today’s information superhighway lacks the bandwidth to deliver the required signals, deteriorating into a muddy footpath as it reaches your front yard. Most homes connect to the Net through modems that deliver at most 56,000 bits per second. High-end users are switching to cable modems and digital subscriber lines (DSL) that can carry a few megabits per second. That’s a big leap ahead, but hardly enough to satisfy the Gernsback household: The scenario described above would demand 100 to 200 megabits per second.
I named our futuristic family after Hugo Gernsback, a technophile and writer who published America’s first science-fiction magazine in 1926. But in just a couple of months, some residents of Palo Alto, Calif., will get a taste of these powers when their homes are wired directly to optical fibers. Palo Alto is not alone on the fiber forefront. Last fall, BellSouth began stringing fiber to up to 400 homes in Dunwoody, Ga., an affluent suburb just north of Atlanta. Unlike other fiber-to-the-home systems that have been rolled out in the past as field trials, Dunwoody is a permanent installation. North of the border, Futureway Communications, a new Canadian phone company seeking a niche offering high-end services, is stringing fiber to homes in five Toronto suburbs. Optical Solutions, a young Minneapolis company, is supplying Futureway with fiber connections for 20,000 homes, and has sold hundreds of home links to other small phone companies.