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Light speed broadband research gets £7.2m boost

January 29, 2011

The Telegraph

The government has given a £7.2m boost to research that aims to revolutionise the internet by harnessing the speed of light.

FIBRE OPTICS - BT set to roll out super-fast broadband network 

Fibre optics: the backbone of the internet, for now Photo: GETTY IMAGES
By Christopher Williams, Technology Correspondent 8:00AM GMT 29 Nov 20111 Comment 

The aim of the “Photonic Hyperhighway” project, based at the University of Southampton, is to develop new hardware that removes bottlenecks in the infrastructure at the centre of digital communications.

The team want new photonic switches to replace the heavy duty electronic switches that route internet packets to and from millions of people every day, and must convert light signals to electrons, route them correctly, then convert them back to light to be sent on.

As well as slowing down traffic, this process cumulatively wastes huge amounts of energy. Meanwhile photonic switches, some relying on exotic materials such as liquid crystal, route the light itself.

“Now is the time to look ahead to develop the UK infrastructure of the future,” said Professor David Payne, leader of the project.

“Traffic on the global communications infrastructure continues to increase 80 per cent year-on-year. This is driven by rapidly expanding and increasingly demanding applications, such as internet television services and new concepts like cloud computing.”

According to the analysts Telegeography, global internet traffic grew 60 per cent in 2010, although overall usage levels were stable because of investment in new capacity by carriers. Photonic technology could bring a quantum leap in capacity.

The Photonic Hyperhighway team also aim to reengineer the fibre optic cables that form the backbone of the internet, carrying light signals over thousands of miles. The scientists will explore alternative materials that offer more bandwidth and greater reliability and security than the glass currently used.

According to Professor Payne’s grant proposal, new photonic hardware could improve the performance of internet infrastructure by 1,000 times.

Announcing the award of £7.2m on Friday, David Willetts, the Minister for Universities and Science said: “The Photonics HyperHighway project has the potential to truly revolutionise the internet, making it much faster and more energy-efficient.

“The project is also a shining example of the UK’s world-leading role in this area of research, and I look forward to the exciting breakthroughs it will bring.”

The name of the Southampton project references the “Information Superhighway”, a widely-used epiphet for the internet during the 1990s.

Billions of dollars are being poured into photonics research worldwide, including by commercial giants IBM and Intel. They hope to use light to replace copper interconnects between and within microchips, reaping similar benefits of improved speed and efficiency.

It’s interesting to see how the British technocracy can sells it’s ideas to the nation at large.  A mere 7.2 million pound endowment to a critical area of research requires a Telegraph release.

The only thing really surprising about this article: when I go back to school to finish my degree in networking, I will learn 40 year old switching and routing technology based on transistors.  That light switches haven’t been mainstreamed is surprising.

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