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Southampton optical technologies highlighted by Ofcom for communications of the future

Published: 6 May 2021
Shaping communications of the future in fibre optics and silicon photonics

Ground-breaking advances in fibre optics and silicon photonics at the Zepler Institute for Photonics and Nanoelectronics (ZIPN) have been identified by Ofcom as shaping communications of the future.

The communications regulator's Technology Futures report spotlights key innovative and emerging technologies, before evaluating their potential to create a bright future for the UK's communications industry.

Within its exploration of fixed and optical technologies, the report highlights research within the University of Southampton where techniques "continue to improve at a rapid rate" and will have a "major impact in the medium to long term".

Southampton's Zepler Institute is home to the Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC), one of the world's leading institutes for photonics research.

The Ofcom report, which was co-authored by ORC visiting professor William Stewart, explores the merits of hollow-core fibre technology in surpassing current fibre limits.

The next-generation fibres have been pioneered in the Southampton-led LightPipe research programme and applied to novel application fields within the Airguide Photonics programme.

The report concludes: "This more radical approach to remove most of the glass in the fibre core could deliver lower loss than existing fibres, possibly within only a few years. This and other characteristics could have a big impact on undersea fibre cables, which carry most intercontinental traffic. And the lower and more stable latency could impact different types of applications."

The Ofcom analysis proceeds to explore the "very significant" developments in opto-electronic devices.

Recognising silicon's "capability to produce relatively low cost and compact devices and circuits", the publication reference's the ORC's recent demonstration of the first all-silicon optical transmitter at 100Gbps and beyond without the use of digital signal processing.

The optical modulator almost doubles the maximum data rate of current state-of-the-art devices, demonstrating the potential for low power low-cost all-silicon solutions that avoid complicating fabrication processes with new materials that are not CMOS compatible.

This and other transformative breakthroughs in silicon photonics were reported at Photonics West 2021 this spring in a special plenary event with Southampton's Professor Graham Reed.

Ofcom's Technology Futures report is supplemented by video contributions from 11 world-leading experts on emerging technologies, including Southampton's Professor David Richardson.

Professor Richardson, Deputy Director of the ZIPN, said: "Technologically, I think the greatest development will be towards seamless, higher-bandwidth, low-latency connectivity between electrical and optical systems, between machines and ultimately between machines and our own bodies."

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