Project aims to identify technologies for a post-fibre internet...
Universities and science minister David Willetts has announced a £7.2m investment for a research project that could make internet speeds 100 times faster.
The aim of the six-year Photonics HyperHighway project is to improve the internet infrastructure. The project will bring together researchers from the University of Southampton and the University of Essex alongside industry partners, including the BBC Research and Development department.
Professor David Payne of the University of Southampton, who is leading the project, told silicon.com this research is desperately needed to keep up with the growth of the internet because the ability to increase the capacity of fibre cables will soon be exhausted.
With increasing demand for internet capacity and without the ability to increase the capacity of fibre cables, Payne warned that "you may have to put in twice the number of cables every two years, which would become very difficult and expensive".
"By somewhere around the year 2020, the rate of laying cables worldwide for powering the internet becomes inadequate," he said. Payne added that this situation is similar to the one faced in electronics whereby the limit of silicon transistors that can be fitted into a single chip may soon be reached.
Researchers have identified two key ways in which the project hopes to increase the capacity of internet. First, it plans to investigate new designs and new materials for the cables themselves, and secondly, find new ways to increase maximum power input.
Payne predicted that finding new materials for internet cables and ways of increasing the amount of optical power input could each increase data transfer rates by a factor of 10, resulting in internet speeds up to 100 times faster than currently possible using fibre.
New materials for internet cables could be found by modifying the properties of silica, according to researchers from the University of Southampton, although Payne stressed they are at the very early stages of research.
Payne also added that the cables could be structured differently: "Fibre cable only has one light-carrying core in it. There is no reason why it couldn't have five or six."
Other more speculative elements of the research plans include investigating whether routers could be replaced. "Part of the limitation on the bandwidth is because of the routers. They all have to be electronic and this is a major bottleneck," Payne explained. "The question is, 'Could we do all that optically?'."
In a statement, Willetts stressed the importance of the internet for economic growth, with the current UK internet industry worth an estimated £100bn. The banking industry in particular could benefit from faster transaction times as it did with the introduction of the fibre cable network. Retail has also been identified as an industry that would benefit from a greater internet capacity alongside web industries, which rely on fast upload and download speeds.
While the project hopes to release the first early findings within a year, it is likely to be another 10 years before internet users can benefit from the technological improvements developed by the project.