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Photonics project to tackle Internet 'capacity crunch'

04 Jun 2014

UK investing £1.1m in Aston University bandwidth and energy optimisation research.

A £1.5m international communications project led by Aston University is aiming to tackle the growing worldwide internet "capacity crunch" and reducing network energy consumption.

Significant expansion in the use of mobile networks and remote devices, such as smart phones and tablets, has increased the strain on current optical communication networks dramatically, which could impact on the future growth of the internet.

Professor Andrew Ellis of Aston University, Birmingham, UK, is leading the Petabit Energy Aware Capacity Enhancement (PEACE) project to significantly improve bandwidth and reduce energy consumption on optical fiber networks, which carry over 99 per cent of all network data.

His team believes that by using a balance of digital, analogue electronic and optical processing, they can transmit signals over an optical fiber with enough bandwidth to simultaneously support a million mobile phones operating at the same time while also halving energy consumption of optical transponders. Ellis says this could fundamentally improve the speed and quality of service provided to the 17.6 million UK mobile internet users and over 70 per cent of UK households who have broadband access.

Bandwidth boom

Professor Ellis, of the Aston Institute for Photonic Technologies, said, “Since the introduction of direct dialling in 1950, there has been a long succession of telecoms applications affecting network capacities. The boom in smartphone and tablet use is the latest phenomenon currently fuelling growing bandwidth. To facilitate the long-term exponential expansion of bandwidth, optical intensities at the core of optical fibers have been steadily increased.

”However, they have been amplified to such an extent that they are, in effect, more intense than sunlight at the surface of the Earth’s atmosphere, which means significant signal distortion. It is this distortion, which is limiting the amount of data that can be transmitted, leading to the capacity crunch. This capacity crunch, if allowed to happen, could seriously impact the internet’s future growth, such as increased prices or bandwidth rationing, both of which would have undesirable consequences for society and the economy.”

Ellis is confident that the project team, working with industry partners, can resolve significant issues associated with transporting the huge bandwidths which will be required across all aspects of future communication networks and associated power consumption. For example, the team estimate that the energy consumption of the internet is over eight per cent of the electricity generation capacity of a developed country.

He commented, “Since over 99% of all data passes through optical fiber, by supporting the continued increase in the bandwidth of fiber networks we can impact the lives of nearly every person in the United Kingdom. We will increase network capacity by maximizing spectral use, and developing techniques to combat the nonlinear effects induced by the high intensities encountered in today’s networks.

"But equally importantly, by combining appropriate digital technique, such as those as those found in mobile phones, with analogue and optical signal processing we will develop equipment for use in optical fiber networks with less than half of the energy consumption per bit of current products.”

The PEACE project is part-funded by a £1.1m grant from the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

About the Author

Matthew Peach is a contributing editor to optics.org.

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