Evolution of the Internet: Are Transfer Speeds of 12.5GB/s Possible?


Pragya Parmita

Downloading a Blu-ray disc in two seconds is a distant dream for the average American consumer, but thanks to researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany, the technology for such high download speeds has already been developed. In a record experiment, researchers were able to transmit data with a speed of 100 gigabits/s (or 12.5 gigabytes/s) at a frequency of 237.5 GHz over a distance of 20 meters in the laboratory. Compare this record-breaking speed to 8.6 megabits/s, which is the average download speed today in the U.S., according to Akamai’s State of the Internet report.

Professor Ingmar Kallfass says that the “project focused on integration of a broadband radio relay link into fiber-optical systems… For rural areas in particular, this technology represents an inexpensive and flexible alternative to optical fiber networks.” This technology could also be added to the end of a fiber network, which is the standard type cable network that modern Internet runs through. Light running through fiber-optic cables creates electromagnetic waves in which information can be passed through the cables. If a high-speed fiber network transmitted signals to a mobile base station, KIT’s wireless technology could be used to transfer the signal to consumers. This signal transfer would be especially convenient due to KIT’s use of higher-powered optical lasers.

Using a photon mixer made by the Japanese company NTT Electronics, the researchers at KIT superimposed two optical laser signals of different frequencies on a photodiode (which transforms light into electrical currents) to create an electrical signal with a frequency equaling the difference between the optical signals. This high-powered signal can transfer large amounts of data in the resulting electromagnetic waves. An antenna then transmits the signal to the receiver, which in turn uses fully integrated electronic circuits to decipher it. A semiconductor chip, produced by the Fraunhofer Institute of Applied Solid State Physics, only a few square millimeters in size, enabled “the fabrication of active, broadband receivers for the frequency range between 200 and 280 GHz” using technology based on high-electron mobility transistors, according to the KIT press release. This semiconductor receiver chip also functions with advanced modulation formations, thereby allowing the radio link to be passed through the modern optical fiber networks.

The availability and accessibility of this technology to the general public, however, remains uncertain. While the laboratory experiment, under the “Millilink” project, was conducted within a budget of EUR 2 million, the cost of implementing this technology across the country, especially in a country as big as the United States, would be enormous. To provide some perspective of the required expenses, cables companies have spent $200 billion on improving Internet speed since 1996. In addition, Brian Roberts, current CEO of Comcast, United States’ largest cable provider, demonstrated the impressive download speed of 100 Mbps in 1996. Again, the current Internet speed in the U.S. remains under 25 Mbps, even at its best.

Furthermore, to compete with Google Fiber (which boasts a speed of 1 Gbps), Roberts recently presented a 3 Gbps cable broadband connection at the industry’s annual trade show in Washington, D.C in June 2013. He claims, however, that actually upgrading the entire network system to such speeds would not be cost effective and useful, as most consumers would have no use of such high bandwidths. Regardless, in response to the consumer demands of high Internet speeds, CableLabs is working “to standardize the next evolution of technology, DOCSIS 3.1, which makes more efficient use of the network and can deliver download speeds up to 6 Gbps,” according to Marguerite Reardon of CNET. The network may be commercially available as early as 2015.

However, at what cost does this come? Prices for high-speed broadband are already staggering. Comcast charges between $60-75/month for a speed of 50 Mbps; it increases to $115/month for 105 Mbps and $320/month for 305 Mbps. And while Google only charges $70/month for Google Fiber, it is available only in states with governments supportive of the development. As a result, while the idea of widely available transfer speeds of 100 Gbps is exciting, it is still quite a ways into the future.