Rebuilding the UK telecommunications industry
Professor David Richardson has been at the forefront of photonics research for the past 30 years. He has led various large collaborative optical communications research programmes in the UK and abroad, as well as being involved in pioneering research in hollow-core optical fibres, telecommunications, high power fibre lasers and optical fibre amplifiers. He has also co-founded two photonics spin out companies.
As Deputy Director of the Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC) and a Future Photonics Hub Co-Investigator, he shares his insights on the current state of our telecommunications networks and what needs to be done to ensure they keep up with society’s demand.
The telecommunications industry contributes four to five per cent of the UK’s GDP and plays a vital role in the economic and social well-being of the country. Consumers have an abundance of choice at their fingertips when it comes to mobile phone networks, broadband providers and cable TV providers.
Up until the late 1990s/early 2000s, the UK had a very healthy telecommunications industry. It was doing world-leading research and was home to large UK-owned manufacturing companies spanning the full range of what was needed to build high performance telecommunications networks. In the late 1990s/early 2000s the telecoms market really took off – the early phase of the so-called dot-com bubble. There was large investment and many new companies came to market. To remain competitive and to cut down on costs, many of these companies started to move their manufacturing activities offshore, mostly to Asia. In addition, some of the big telecoms companies, both carriers and equipment manufacturers, reduced their research and development in the photonics and optics space and started to look internationally to where they were going to buy their technology. Ultimately, this created an oversupply, not just in the UK but around the world and the bubble collapsed. Many companies went out of business, some almost overnight, and much consolidation amongst those companies that survived ensued.
Fast forward to 2021, we’re now in a position where there are few major UK-owned telecoms companies, and we are left with relatively modest telecoms-centric manufacturing capability. Moreover, as a country we have fallen behind many others in terms of the performance of our communications networks whilst the importance and demands on our digital infrastructure becomes ever more critical. However, the demand for telecommunications is only going to keep rising. For example, every time we undergo a generational change in mobile communications, from 4G to 5G presently, and in the future to 6G, the underlying optical network capacity requirements increase massively. Every year the traffic demand increases by around 40-50 per cent. Industry needs to sustainably support that growth without a significant increase in costs to the consumer, presenting huge technological, economic and logistical challenges.
We are meeting the challenge
There are a number of activities being done to address this challenge and we are at the forefront. Fibre optic cables form the pipeline through which nearly all communications get sent and received and silicon photonics provides a means to increase the performance and to reduce the cost of the key terminal equipment.
Current fibres have a glass diameter of around 125 microns and contain a single core in the centre, about 10 microns in diameter, where the signal, encoded in laser light, flows. This represents a single signal pathway. Our research teams are exploring ways to transmit signals over multiple optical pathways through that single core simply by making it bigger. We are also trying to increase the number of cores in the fibre cross section to provide additional signal pathways. Both approaches, and their combination, enable much more efficient use of the fibre cross-section and potentially allow the amount of data transmitted in each fibre to be increased by factors of up to 100. It is to be appreciated that when a signal propagates down a fibre, energy is unavoidably lost, so every 50-100 km, the signal needs a boost. In current networks this is provided by the erbium doped fibre amplifier, a device invented at Southampton in the mid-1980s. We are now working on optical amplifiers that can simultaneously amplify signals on multiple pathways to suit the new multipath transmission fibres discussed above. So far, we have demonstrated the amplification of 42 individual spatial channels in a single device, removing the need for 42 amplifiers of conventional fibre design.
This is exciting research that has a lot of potential but on its own it will not have a big enough impact. We need a combination of investment and an integrated innovation network to ensure research is translated into real-world applications. Programmes like the Future Photonics Hub enable an efficient and direct link to industry partners and play a crucial role in moving a lab-based discovery to a commercial platform. The Hub provides expertise in the preparatory work required when working with industry partners and provides a well-defined translational interface between companies and our core government-funded research programmes.
A national stategy
The pandemic has shown us just how important and critical our digital infrastructure is. The UK has a huge diversity of world class expertise in telecoms. There are good reasons to regenerate the telecoms industry in the UK, both from a business opportunity and a UK supply chain/secure sovereign capability perspective. However, to do this will require both a national strategy and substantial investment. Greater coherence and co-ordination across Government, as well as the industrial and academic sectors will be needed to make the most of the commercial opportunity for the UK and to ensure a leading edge national infrastructure long into the future.
A lot of discussion is currently underway at the national level as to what the UK telecoms strategy might look like across several Government departments, industry and the academic community, all of whom have important roles to play. It remains to be seen where this ultimately leads. In the meanwhile, Southampton along with other UK academic institutions, continue to develop new technologies to meet the challenges the telecommunications industry and UK more broadly faces. They are developing these new technologies through new spinout companies, such as Lumenisity Ltd based in Southampton, who are developing leading-edge hollow-core optical fibre cables to improve the responsiveness of communication networks.
An open market
Importantly, there has been a material shift in the way that telecom systems are employed and installed, which has had a major effect on the marketplace. Through open standards, the internationally agreed performance standards, companies are able to buy and deploy devices and components for the network instead of relying on large system integration companies with bespoke solutions. They know that they will work when they integrate them together. This is both driving the cost down and removing the barrier to entry for competition. Smaller companies now have better opportunities to enter the market and to address particular components, or needs, within the network. This competition should ultimately prove a good thing for UK industry and will hopefully allow vendors and operators to look at homegrown as well as overseas suppliers.
There’s world-leading capabilities in the UK research space, particularly in universities, that is available to help regenerate the UK communications capability. This includes technology, research and world class facilities. Training and knowledge exchange are essential to develop skilled people who are then able to go out and join companies, or indeed to form their own, as is having people from industry come and work in an academic environment. The transferring of skills and expertise between people creates a healthy ecosystem that should enable UK industry to thrive in the future.