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.”