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PEACE – Aston University Project to Tackle Global Internet “capacity crunch”

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014 (8:11 am) - Score 487

Birmingham-based Aston University in England has launched a new £1.5m international project called Petabit Energy Aware Capacity Enhancement (PEACE) that aims to “significantly improve bandwidth” and “reduce energy consumption” on our major fibre optic networks, which carry over 99% of all network and Internet data.

The Aston led project warns that the Internet faces a “capacity crunch” due to a rise the use of mobile networks and remote devices, such as Smartphones and Tablets, which has “increased the strain on current communication networks dramatically” (mostly due to the consumption of online video). As a practical example we note that data traffic on TalkTalk’s broadband network has grown from 557Gbps (Gigabits per second) in January 2013 to a peak of over 1Tbps (Terabits per second) in February 2014.

Critical to avoiding this “capacity crunch” is the on-going work by multiple separate teams around the world to push more data down existing international and subsea (marine) fibre optic lines, which saves having to build new cables. For example, last year Alcatel-Lucent initially set a new world record after it successfully transmitted data at the staggering speed of 31Tbps (Terabits per second) over a single long-haul 7200km optical fibre cable (here).

But you can only twist and split light so much before you’ve covered every currently conceivable way of extracting additional capacity. The PEACE team warns that such signals have now been amplified to such an extent that “they are now more intense than sunlight at the surface of the Earth’s atmosphere“, which apparently results in significant signal distortion.

The team, which also estimates that the energy consumption of the Internet is over 8% of the electricity generation capacity of a developed country, believe that they can mitigate this by using a balance of digital, analogue electronic and optical processing. Apparently this would halve the energy consumption of optical transponders and enable signals to be transmitted over an optical fibre with “enough bandwidth to simultaneously support a million mobile phones operating at the same time“.

Professor Ellis, Aston Institute for Photonic Technologies, said:

Since the introduction of direct dialling in 1950 we have seen a long succession of applications affecting our network capacities. The boom in smart phone 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 fibres have been steadily increased.

However, they have been amplified to such an extent that they are now more intense than sunlight at the surface of the Earth’s atmosphere, which results in significant signal distortion. It is this distortion which limits the amount of data which can be transmitted, leading to capacity crunch.

This capacity crunch, if allowed to happen, could seriously impact upon the internet’s future growth. This could lead to increased price or bandwidth rationing, both of which have undesirable consequences for society and the economy.

We will increase network capacity by maximising spectral use, and developing techniques to combat the nonlinear effects induced by the high intensities encountered in today’s networks.”

On the other hand anybody who has been using the Internet for the past decade or more will note that fears of a “capacity crunch” are nothing new. But so far it hasn’t happened because, when push comes to shove, the relevant countries and network operators usually end up adapting by building new cables or upgrading existing infrastructure.

Similarly many of the most recent fibre optic performance developments have yet to make it into the commercial market place and the EU / other countries also appear to be funding a number of projects that seem to cross into the same area of research as PEACE. Suffice to say that if there is a capacity crunch then there’s still plenty of scope to adapt before it hits and any contributions that PEACE can make to that effort would be most welcome.

At the same time if new cables are needed then last year’s demonstration by scientists working at the University of Southampton (England, UK) might be the way forward. The Southampton team found a way to push data at close to the true speed of light by using a hollow fibre optic cable, which was able to deliver transfer speeds of 73.7 Terabits per second (here), although that’s yet to be tested over the distance of a lengthy international link.

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

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