Broadband '2,000 times' faster aim of Bangor scientists

By George Herd
BBC Wales news

image captionThe Bangor University team hope the high-speed fibre optic technology can be developed using cheap 'off-the-shelf' components

Broadband speeds that are 2,000 times faster without a massive hike in costs?

"Yes" say a team of UK researchers, who believe they are on the way to cracking how to cram more data down optic fibres - without breaking the bank.

The scientists at Bangor University in north Wales have already managed to pump 20 gigabits of data every second - enough to download a full HD movie in 10 seconds.

They are now working on a three-year project to make it commercially viable.

On a simple level, current fibre optic networks work by taking digital data, the zeros and ones that make up computer codes and digital information, and turn it into pulses of light.

Optic limitations

But as the length of a fibre optic cable increases, and the amount of data being pumped is also stepped up, errors can start to creep in.

The effect is known as dispersion.

At the moment, ways at tackling that problem have looked at measures such as increasing the physical number of fibre optic strands in cables, increasing the number of lasers coding and decoding the digital data, and signal amplification technologies.

"The trouble is, that can all cost a lot of money," said Dr Roger Giddings, one of the team running the Ocean project in north Wales.

"So the focus for the Ocean project is really to find out if we can do it in a cost-effective way, and is it a viable way of doing it in a commercial setting?"

The researchers have taken a very different approach to the problem, by tweaking some well-understood technology that is already being used in wireless networks and digital broadcasting.

It is known as the mouthful that is called: Optical Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing, or OOFDM.

'Unique' approach

In Bangor, the process takes raw digital data, converts it to a series of physical electrical waves, and then into an optical signal that a laser can pump down a cable.

The breakthrough is that the team have managed to design the electronic kit that can both code and decode these optical signals on the fly.

"There are probably less than 10 groups in the world who have been looking at this sort of problem," said Dr Giddings.

"But we are the only group who has got this end-to-end system.

"This is the only system that we know of in the world that we can demonstrate working in real-time - with a real-time transceiver and a real-time receiver."

Not only has the team managed to run data through optic fibres at 20Gbps, they are confident of hitting speeds later of about 40Gbps.

Real-world speeds

So how does that play in the current real world of broadband connections?

Across the world, a handful of cities are now offering 1Gbps connections, such as Kansas in the US, which is part of a pilot by the internet giant Google.

The fastest speed offered to the UK public is a 1.5Gbps broadband connection trialled by Virgin Media in east London.

But in reality, according to the ISPreview website, in October the fastest average download speeds actually available in Britain stood at 33.4Mbps - just 0.17% of the speed of the theoretical a 20Gbps connection.

So the challenge now for the Bangor researchers is to turn the laboratory bench technology into an electronics module that could find its way into current fibre networks - at the right price.

But the scientists are not on their own - they have the help of world renowned industry partners.

Onboard in the Ocean project are microchip experts Fujitsu Semiconductors Europe; the developers of the MPEG video format, Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute; optic fibre innovators Finisar Israel; and VPIsystems, one of the world leaders in network data analysis.

"We hope to a have a working module at the end of the three-year project, and we are one year into it at the moment" said Dr Giddings.

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