Jump to Light Speed

Electrons carry data around computer networks in the form of electrical signals. In a home and small business context, those signals are usually channeled down copper wires. Electrons in a copper wire can carry huge volumes of data over distances up to around one hundred metres.

We want to go further: So far, in fact, that electrons are no longer suitable. Instead we need to turn to photons. Photons can carry data in the form of light waves: Think of a lamp signalling morse code, but much faster and with far greater finesse.

Photons moving in a glass fibre travel faster (quite literally at the speed of light), and attenuate at a much lower rate, than electrons in a copper wire. In our application, attenuation is key. That application is a shed.

Thornleigh Boatshed Lord Howe Island
The big shed with new doors, replaced cradle, and stacked boats visible inside

The Thornleigh Boatshed sits on the Lord Howe Island lagoon. It was built by my great-grandparents in the 1960’s. A noble shed, its sturdy hardwood structure has stood steadfast against countless ocean storms.

The Thornleigh boatsheds pictured in the 1970’s, with slipway fully functional

The boatshed is quite a distance away from the main body of the farm. Too far for copper wire to be able to carry significant amounts of data. Thick palm forest separates it from the nearest building on the farm, precluding a wireless link.

Wireless links like this one have helped us bridge other big gaps on the farm. But the boatshed is shielded by palm forest

Optical fibre is the answer. Problem: Laying fibre would require a conduit running under dense palm forest, Lagoon Road, and out to the beach. As it happened, quite fortuitously, the boatshed had one readily available.

Conduit carrying optical fibre beneath the palm forest

Back in the old days, Thornleigh generated its own electricity. To deliver electricity to the boatshed, a conduit was laid. That conduit survives to this day, though no longer carrying power.

Optical fibre on a roll, before being pulled through the conduit

The old conduit was in fairly rough shape. It shredded the first fibre we tried to thread through. After some repair work, it was ready to go, and we have since established a fibre optic link from boatshed to farm.

Jessica and Lara helping me to push the limits of the boatshed radios: A video call to Sydney on my iPhone from 350 metres down Lagoon beach

Extending the farm network out to the boatshed has precipitated upgrades to our core network infrastructure. New switch gear, a dedicated server room, racks, and other techy gizmos have greatly enhanced our ability to shovel disgusting quantities of data around the island.

Data flying this way and that in our new server room

This begs the question: Why? Well, why do you install electricity and running water in a building? You might be fairly sure people will use electricity for lights and water for toilets, but you won’t know all the ends to which they might apply those resources.

Optical fibre terminating in the boatshed

Network connections are like water and electricity. I’m fairly sure we will use this new infrastructure to get internet access out in the boatshed, but I don’t know what other capabilities might be enabled. I have no doubt you will be seeing some unexpected applications popping up on this blog in the near future.