Home broadband speeds could get dramatic increase with new hardware technology

New hardware designed and demonstrated by UCL researchers could provide consistently high-speed broadband connectivity.

Frustratingly slow, inconsistent Internet speeds and the dreaded ‘rush hour’ – the peak time when data speeds can drop by up to 30 per cent – could soon be history, thanks to new hardware designed and demonstrated by UCL researchers.

The research team from the UCL Optical Networks Group and the University of Cambridge has developed a new, simplified receiver to be used in optical-access networks: the links connecting internet subscribers to their service providers.

The new receiver is simpler, cheaper and smaller, requiring just a quarter of the detectors used in conventional receivers. It enables dedicated data rates of more than 10,000 megabits per second (Mb/s) for a super-fast, yet low-cost, broadband connection to every UK home.

This simplification was achieved by adopting a coding technique to fibre-access networks that was originally designed to prevent signal fading in wireless communications. This approach has the additional cost-saving benefit of using the same optical fibre for both upstream and downstream data.

“To maximise the capacity of optical-fibre links, data is transmitted using different wavelengths, or colours, of light. Ideally, we’d dedicate a wavelength to each subscriber to avoid the bandwidth sharing between the users," said Professor Polina Bayvel, co-author and head of the Optical Networks Group at UCL's Electronic & Electrical Engineering department.

“Although this is already possible using highly sensitive hardware known as coherent receivers, they are costly and only financially viable in core networks that link countries and cities. Their cost and complexity has so far prevented their introduction into the access networks and limits the support of multi‑gigabit-per-second broadband rates available to subscribers."

The receiver was tested on a dark-fibre network installed between Telehouse in east London), UCL in central London and Powergate in west London. The team successfully sent data over distances of 37.6km and 108km to eight users who were able to download and upload at speeds of at least 10Gb/s. This is more than 30 times faster than the fastest broadband currently available in the UK.

“UK broadband speeds are woefully slow compared to many other countries, but this is not a technical limitation," said lead researcher Dr Erkılınç of UCL's Electronic & Electrical Engineering department.

“Although 300 Mb/s may be available to some, average UK speeds are currently 36 Mb/s. By 2025, average speeds over 100 times faster will be required to meet increased demands for bandwidth-hungry applications such as ultra-high-definition video, online gaming, and the Internet of Things.

“The future growth in the number of mobile devices, coupled with the promise of 5G to enable new services via smart devices, means we are likely to experience bandwidth restrictions; our new optical-receiver technology will help combat this problem.

“This simple receiver offers users a dedicated wavelength, so user speeds stay constant no matter how many users are online at once. It can co-exist with the current network infrastructure, potentially quadrupling the number of users that can be supported and doubling the network’s transmission distance/coverage.”

Looking to the future and assessing the commercial potential for the new receiver design, Professor Bayvel said, “BT Openreach recently announced that fibre access is a key focus and must improve. With high-capacity broadband a priority for the UK government, we will be working to reduce the electrical power requirements of this technique to make this commercially viable in the nearest future.

“We believe that [this receiver] has real potential to provide high-speed broadband connectivity to every home, which will support the growing digitally enabled economy in the years to come.”

The study, published in Nature Communications, was funded by the EPSRC UNLOC Programme and Huawei Technologies.

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