Move Over Fiber Optic Cables: Twisted Light Could Soon Connect Us to the Web at Lightning Speed

As the volume of data transmitted worldwide continues to grow each day, researchers are focusing on new, more efficient ways of transmitting information.

The world creates a lot of data. In fact, global internet traffic surpassed one zettabyte — that’s one trillion gigabytes — in 2016, representing a fivefold increase over the last five years.

In order to keep pace with this explosion of data, scientists and IT professionals have been tirelessly searching for faster ways to transmit larger volumes of information. Altice USA, for instance, has announced plans to provide its 8.3 million customers with ten Gbps internet by installing a fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) system instead of a standard hybrid fiber-and-cable network. Google has been experimenting with foregoing last-mile cabling altogether with its Webpass infrastructure, a system that uses point-to-point wireless technology to transmit internet signals from cutting-edge rooftop antennae. Others are pursuing applications of quantum computing in networking, whereby photons are used to transmit quantum bits, or “qubits,” between isolated atoms.

As promising as these endeavors are, they all still rely on optical fibers as their data transmission “highways.” Truly fast internet is only available where fiber optic cables have been installed, an upgrade that is neither convenient, nor affordable in many locations.

Luckily, one team of researchers from the UK, Germany, New Zealand, and Canada recently published a paper in Science Advances outlining the possibility of conducting wireless communications using “twisted light.” Unlike other alternatives, this approach would greatly reduce ISPs’ reliance on fiber optic cabling.

Optics with a Twist

Headed by Dr. Martin Lavery, the research group documented how passing photons through a specially-designed hologram gives the particles a certain “twist,” or optical angular momentum (OAM). The helical structure of the twisted photons enabled the researchers to embed six orders of magnitude more data in their communications than is currently standard. As Lavery puts it, “[This is] something akin to adding letters alongside the ones and zeroes.”

OAM techniques have already seen limited use in wired communications, but the Lavery group pushed the application of twisted light further by beaming it across open spaces. Until now, scientists have struggled to overcome the innate fragility of OAM. Changes in atmospheric pressure from shifting weather patterns and turbulence created by disruptive features of a dense urban environment can easily scatter unprotected light beams and “untwist” photons, effectively erasing all of the extra, “lettered” information.

These difficulties notwithstanding, Lavery’s team managed to establish a mile-long free space link in Erlangen, Germany, that passed over fields and streets and alongside high-rise buildings. The researchers successfully used the link to transmit twisted light messages, proving that, if developed properly, this method may dramatically increase the maximum bandwidth of internet connections in the years to come.

“Free space optics is a solution that can potentially give us the bandwidth of fiber, but without the requirement for physical cabling,” Lavery explains. “A complete, working optical angular momentum communications system…has the potential to transform online access for developing countries, defense systems, and cities around the world.”

Preparing for the Future By Optimizing the Present

As Lavery makes clear, twisted light could very well redefine what we think of as “fast” internet. That being said, even Lavery admits that full mastery of OAM techniques is still a ways off. In the interim, companies must make a concerted effort to keep their networking infrastructures up-to-date. If a company is still clinging to a system of networks that hasn’t been updated in years, its IT team is going to have a difficult time hopping on the OAM train once it becomes a feasible option for businesses.

As such, companies should consider partnering with a networking expert like Turn-key Technologies to ensure that their IT systems are designed well enough to seamlessly integrate any and all new networking technologies as they come to market. From wireless site surveys to network assessments to managed services, our diverse slate of offerings can help any company optimize its networks for today while preparing them for everything that will come down the pipeline tomorrow.

By Craig Badrick

December 6, 2017

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