5,000 Netflix films per second is the broadband speed we all need, and science is on the case

Researchers have developed a system that could ease internet congestion considerably

(Image credit: Getty Images)

You’re probably sitting at your computer, or on your phone enjoying broadband at speeds between 30 and 500mbps. You might be suffering much less, or enjoying much more. But scientists are beavering away building networks that can achieve speeds of 40 Tb/s (terabits per second), that’s 5,000 Netflix films per second. 

In reality you won’t be seeing this tech in your own home any time soon. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be offering you some benefits behind the scenes. The team of scientists from Ireland, Germany and the Netherlands have created a new method for ultra-fast communications using what they call “optical combs”. 

The idea is that a laser creates a broad spectrum of equally spaced optical frequencies. It’s described as a comb, because that helps you imagine what the output would look like if it was enlarged sufficiently. These distinct frequencies would allow the transmission of far more data simultaneously, it’s the same as a motorway, it’s better for moving lots of cars than a single track lane. Although the company explains it’s more like a railway with lots of train tracks side-by-side and no idiot drivers hogging the middle lane. 

This is different to current optical techniques, which aims to increase the amount of data we can fit in one frequency. Frank Smyth, the CEO of Pilot Photonics says, “Rather than growing data rates on a single wavelength, our technology allows us to use multiple wavelengths at a lower speed, thus removing integrity pressure on a single band. These multiple wavelengths create a single channel known as a “superchannel", enabling longer distances to be travelled by the data and making it easier to maintain good signal integrity”.

So what’s the benefit to regular people? Well, one day technology like this might end up delivering broadband to your home. The idea is that the tech would be applied to existing infrastructure, rather than having to redo everything from scratch. These ideas are the ones that usually work out, and it’s the reason your phone line can deliver broadband over a copper pair that used to only be good for a low-quality audio call. Now you get to watch Netflix in 4K. 

Pilot Photonics is a start-up and it has been working with the European photonics innovation incubator called, rather bafflingly, ACTPHAST 4.0. Solving bandwidth problems is a big part of making the future a place we want to live in. As an example, it’s currently impossible to stream the whole TV output of the UK at once, there’s simply not enough bandwidth to cope. If we want all TV to be delivered over the internet, then tech like this is what will make it possible. 

Very exciting, and we’re very happy to volunteer as tribute, should anyone developing this feel like offering us 40 Tb/s broadband. Interestingly, a test in Japan once delivered 319 terabytes per second, and researchers at UCL managed 178 terabytes per second. 

Ian has been involved in technology journalism since 2007, originally writing about AV hardware back when LCDs and plasma TVs were just gaining popularity. Nearly 15 years on, he remains as excited about how tech can make your life better.