27 September 2023

Twist and shout: How scientists are bending light to speed up the internet

Start the conversation

John Davidson* says a team of Melbourne scientists have invented a fibre optic technology that could increase the bandwidth of the internet by a factor of 100 or more.

Photo: Reid Zura

Scientists at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) say they’ve invented fibre optic technology that could increase the bandwidth of the internet by a factor of 100 or more.

The technology harnesses a quantum property of light to vastly increase the number of laser beams that can simultaneously travel along a fibre optic cable.

It was outlined last week in the peer-reviewed Nature Communications science journal.

The quantum property, known as the Orbital Angular Momentum (OAM) of light, was identified more than a decade ago as a potential way to send an almost unlimited number of data-carrying laser beams through a single glass fibre, simultaneously.

But RMIT scientists say they’ve now figured out how to miniaturise the technology that transmits and then receives light that’s had its OAM manipulated.

What previously took an unfeasibly large piece of technology “the size of a dinner table” can now be put into a single, tiny chip that could be commercialised and could revolutionise the internet in just a few years, the scientists say.

Current fibre optic technology doesn’t simply send one beam of laser light down a glass fibre to transmit data.

Using a technique known as Wavelength Division Multiplexing, it simultaneously sends laser beams of multiple different colours down the fibre, with each colour carrying a stream of data.

A fibre carrying red, green and blue light, for instance, would have triple the data bandwidth of a fibre just carrying red light.

Another technique, known as Polarisation Division Multiplexing, uses light waves that are operating on a variety of planes along the fibre — think of the ABC symbol upright, or lying flat, or at some angle in between — to further multiply the capacity of optical fibre.

The latest technique uses yet another property of light, its OAM, to further differentiate different beams of light, further increasing the number of signals that can be sent and received at once.

Put very simply, the orbital angular momentum of light measures how it twists as it’s travelling through space, its twists being vaguely analogous to the way DNA twists in its famous double-helix fashion.

RMIT scientists say they have created a chip that can induce and then later measure as many as 100 different rates of twisting, increasing fibre optic cable capacity one hundred-fold.

In theory, that number could go much higher as the technology develops, said Professor Min Gu, Distinguished Professor in Nanophotonics, who co-authored the Nature Communications paper.

But, as befits anything shaped liked a helix, there is a twist with the new technology.

The fibre optic cables that have already been laid around Australia aren’t designed to carry information about the angular momentum of light, and new cables with a modified glass core would probably be needed, Professor Gu said.

Also, nobody has yet figured out how to use OAM multiplexing over the long distances that networks such as the National Broadband Network (NBN) would require, Professor Gu said, although the distances were getting greater with each passing year.

While developments such as this do demonstrate that fibre cables are much more “future proof” than the copper cables that the Coalition Government insisted upon for the NBN, they would do little to ease congestion on the NBN in the short or medium term, said Phillip Britt, Managing Director of the internet provider Aussie Broadband.

When Aussie Broadband customers experience congestion on the NBN, it’s related to the copper ADSL and coaxial cables that run from NBN nodes to houses, and not to the fibre optic backbone of the NBN, Mr Britt said.

What would have a bigger impact than twisting the light on the NBN’s fibre optics cables would be to replace the ageing copper with ordinary optical fibre.

Even if the fibre only went to the curb outside customers’ houses, and not all the way to the house as the Labor Government had originally proposed, that would still be 10 times faster than the current NBN speeds most customers are limited to, Mr Britt said.

Such fibre would have plenty of bandwidth, far more than customers could use for many years to come, even before it got the added twists, he said.

For its part, the NBN said it had enough capacity on its fibre optic network, without the need for further technological advances.

“There is plenty of capacity on our Transit Network, but we continue to closely monitor this to ensure we have the right upgrade path in place to increase capacity as the need arises,” an NBN spokesperson said.

“Recently, we switched on a major upgrade to double capacity on high-traffic links in the 60,000 km fibre optic backbone network.”

“The upgrade means NBN Co. can increase maximum capacity on its transit network from 9.6 terabits per second (Tbps) to 19.2 Tbps per fibre link, which will help meet the broadband needs of homes and businesses into the future.”

* John Davidson writes for The Australian Financial Review and is head technician at Digital Life Labs. He tweets at @DLLabs.

This article first appeared at www.afr.com.

Start the conversation

Be among the first to get all the Public Sector and Defence news and views that matter.

Subscribe now and receive the latest news, delivered free to your inbox.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.