All posts by Lucy Ingham

Better Bandwidth: Fighting the impending internet capacity crunch

Every year the number of online devices grows, and with it the amount of data being sent through our internet-supplying networks increases.

Many of us wrongly assume that access to the internet is unlimited, and that we will always be able get online at least at the speeds we currently enjoy. But not so: unless something is done, access to the internet could soon be limited by what scientists at the UK’s Aston University are describing as a ‘capacity crunch’.

According to Aston University Professor Andrew Ellis, who is in charge of a project to improve bandwidth and reduce energy consumption from fibre networks, this capacity crunch is the result of network capacities being steadily increased from the 1950s when direct phone dialling was first introduced.

This was achieved by boosting the optical intensities at the core of standard optical fibres, which improved how much data each cable could carry. Although a perfectly sensible response to increasing data demands, there is an upper limit to boosting optical fibres in this way, which we are now dangerously close to hitting.

“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,” explained Ellis. “It is this distortion which limits the amount of data which can be transmitted, leading to capacity crunch.”


If nothing is done, access to the internet could become limited, with essential, governmental or paid-for services being prioritised over other data.

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

However, with the internet having become such an essential part of our daily lives, a funded project is already in place to tackle the problem, in the form of the Petabit Energy Aware Capacity Enhancement (PEACE) project, which Ellis heads.


The project team believes the solution lies in a combination of digital, analogue and optical processing. The right balance, according to Ellis, will allow them to create an optical fibre with enough bandwidth to support 1 million mobile phones at once.

The innovation would also result in lower energy consumption, which is increasingly important given that 8% of a developed country’s power use now comes from internet use.

“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,” explained Ellis.

“But equally importantly, by combining appropriate digital technique, such as those as those found in mobile phones, with analogue and optical signal processing we will develop equipment for use in optical fibre networks with less than half of the energy consumption per bit of current products.”

Featured image: screenshot from South Park s12e06 ‘Over Logging’.
Inline image one courtesy of Aston University.

In Pictures: This Week’s Most Futuristic Designs


Dragon V2 Manned Space Capsule

On Thursday SpaceX, the private space company founded by Elon Musk, unveiled its new and improved Dragon V2 space capsule, which will be used to shuttle astronauts and cargo between Earth and the International Space Station. The capsule offers improvements over its predecessor, including an autonomous docking system and a helicopter-style landing system.

Image courtesy of SpaceX.


Bubble Air Dome

Designed by London-based architecture firm Orproject, this is a proposal for a bubble filled with clean air for people living in Beijing, a city notorious for smog problems. Plants growing inside the bubble would maintain the air quality, making the space a kind of enclosed park for residents to come and breathe freely.

Via BBC News.


Strooder 3D Printing Filament Extruder

3D printing is the hot new thing, but plastic filament makes the whole process an expensive business. Enter Strooder, a nifty plastic filament extruder that is currently crowdfunding on Kickstarter. Pour inexpensive plastic pellets into the hopper at the top and the machine turns it into 3D printing-ready filament.

Via Kickstarter.


BMW Motorrad Roadster Concept

This futuristic roadster concept from BMW is a one-off design unveiled at the 2014 Concours d’Elegance Villa d’Este, a yearly motor show renowned for its showcasing of historic and concept cars alike. The roadster has a 1,170cc boxer engine and a light tubular frame, and boasts an impressive 123 horsepower at 7,750rpm.

Via DesignBoom.


MiCoach Smart Ball

Tech and football are getting ever closer, and this training ball by Adidas is a classic example. Packed with sensors to identify how players interact with the ball, the MiCoach sends data to a paired iPhone via Bluetooth. The ball features some clever design touches, including a charging pad to negate the need to a cable to power it up.

Via Silicon Republic.