Since plastic was invented in the 1850s, it has transformed industries from textiles to transportation to microelectronics. High-speed communications is one of the last holdouts, but that may soon change. On May 15, Boston Optical Fiber Inc. in Marlborough, Mass., became the first company to sell plastic fiber for telecommunications. It promises data transmission speeds approaching those of glass fiber for a fraction of the cost.
The material--called graded-index plastic optical fiber, or GIPOF--is more flexible than glass. And while it won't take over intercity phone traffic, where peak speeds are critical, it could start replacing copper wire in car electrical systems and in computer local-area networks as early as next year. Boston Optical licensed the technology from a Japanese inventor and enlisted General Motors, Honeywell, and Boeing in a consortium to develop GIPOF, backed by $6 million in Pentagon funds. In Japan, Sony, NEC, Toray, and Toshiba have formed a similar consortium.