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Super-speedy broadband project gets £7m injection

A University of Southampton-led project has won £7.2m in funding to find ways of boosting the amount of data carried by a single fibre and raise broadband speeds a hundredfold
Written by Ben Woods, Contributor

A University of Southampton project to increase the speed of broadband a hundredfold has won £7.2m government investment.

Minister David Willetts

Minister David Willetts has welcomed a £7.2m research project to increase the speed of broadband in the UK. Photo credit: BIS

David Willetts, the UK's minister for universities and science, announced the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council's (ESPRC) financial backing for the Photonics HyperHighway project on Friday.

"The internet industry is worth an estimated £100bn in the UK, so it is in our interest to make it even better for businesses and help boost economic growth," Willetts said. "The Photonics HyperHighway project has the potential to truly revolutionise the internet, making it much faster and more energy efficient."

The six-year Southampton University project, which has enlisted industry partners such as BBC Research and Development, aims to find new ways of delivering broadband services at super-fast speeds. It focuses on the capacity of a single fibre to carry information rather than on the bandwidth available to subscribers, according Professor David Payne, the project's leader.

Increasing the capacity beyond the current target of 1Gbps and the 10Gbps now being tested will help service providers cope with the increasing demand for internet TV and music downloads, as well as benefit commercial, retail and banking organisations by enabling faster transaction times, the Photonics HyperHighway project leaders argue.

The Photonics HyperHighway project has the potential to truly revolutionise the internet, making it much faster and more energy efficient.
– David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science

"Traffic on the global communications infrastructure continues to increase 80 percent year-on-year. This is driven by rapidly expanding and increasingly demanding applications, such as internet television services and new concepts like cloud computing," Payne said in a statement.

Payne said that current fibre capacity is insufficient to sustain the present rate of internet growth.

"We are approaching what is called fibre exhaust. This is when we can no longer rely on technology to increase the available bandwidth from a single fibre — either for new installations or from upgrading existing fibre cables," he told ZDNet UK on Monday.

Payne's traffic predictions are supported by figures provided by Informa, which suggest that by 2015, the average UK consumer will watch three times as many videos online and that the average size of the videos will be more than double what it is today. Informa also says that the average UK consumer will use nearly 60GB of traffic per month by 2015, nearly six times more than in 2010.

Project impact

Despite this, Rob Gallagher, broadband and internet analyst at Informa, is cautious about the potential impact of the project.

"This could have implications for [home broadband] speeds in the longer term, but what it's looking at now is that the industry is close to realising the capacity limits of current fibre technology in the lab — that's a very high-end theoretical level and it still leaves plenty of room to scale up commercial systems [from where we are now]," Gallagher told ZDNet UK.

"It could also help facilitate proximity trading for organisations where milliseconds of latency makes all the difference," he added. Proximity trading is where a bank has a datacentre and server room instead of a trading room, located as geographically close to the stock exchange as possible.

In his statement, Willetts acknowledged that it may be some time before broadband users see the benefits of the research.

"The benefits are more about what is happening on the core networks, rather than an increase in speed that the consumer will see any time soon... Traditionally, putting the infrastructure in place is the expensive part. By developing new transmission techniques or evolving the electronics, you don't have to lay new fibre, which could mean that the savings can filter down to the consumer," Willetts added.

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