Is laser going to be the next telecoms frontier?

When I became involved in the telecoms industry back in the late 1970s, we were just seeing fibre optic cables being commercially developed by Corning. Over the following decades, I have been asked many, many times — do we need fibre cables or wireless technologies and what is next? During all that time, my answer has been that there was no other communication technology available in any commercial sense that would make either fibre optical or mobile technologies obsolete.

What I did mention was that one of the potential future technologies that could become commercially available in the future was from laser-based developments. It is interesting that now for the first time we see potential breakthroughs in this technology that could see us entering a new period of communications revolution.

It looks to me that in the following 20 to 30 years, we are reaching the limitations of our current telecoms infrastructure. What is looming on the horizon is that more and more people and devices do need to be connected to infrastructure that provides low latency, high capacity, high reliability and security.

The problems we face with the current infrastructure is to deploy fibre far more ubiquitously becomes very expensive. Radio-based technologies also do have too many limitations for such an immerged environment. Furthermore, the radio spectrum is limited and therefore expensive. Finally, energy is becoming an increasingly more important issue and the energy use of the current telecoms industry is unsustainable going forwards. Laser-based technology is far more energy-efficient.

On the technology side, laser is better than radio as light wavelengths are packed much more tightly than the radio waves and they transmit more information per second with a stronger signal. However, until now, the technology was not up to scratch to provide the reliability needed for large-scale networks. Such systems require stable laser beams and enough capacity to provide high levels of reliability. Also, up to now, laser technology was heavily affected by the weather, sunlight and other atmospheric conditions.

We now start seeing that these limitations are being overcome and that laser is becoming a real alternative to other forms of telecoms infrastructure.

I was talking to laser communications start-up Transcelestial, a company that has developed new laser technologies that can be deployed both terrestrially and by satellite and can provide ultra-high broadband speeds of up 10Gb/s at present, with plans to release a 25Gb/s version early 2021. At the same time, their unique dynamic beam pointing, acquisition and tracking technologies are highly accurate and can withstand adverse atmospheric conditions.

During testing in Seoul, Korea in 2018 with partners SK Telecom and Facebook, their devices were unexpectedly confronted by days of cyclonic conditions and the technology held up absent of a single drop in link performance. The company is Singapore based with operations in southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand.

Another interesting development that will support further advancement in laser technologies is the breakthrough in satellite technologies with the arrive of cube satellites (CubeSats). These can be placed in a meshed network whereby they can provide maximum access to high-speed broadband across the world. They do, however, need line-of-sight.

Meshed Cubesat systems are potentially far more economically viable than terrestrial networks. This is another game changer in the communications revolution. Laser technology is very well suited in the case of satellite communications. The combination of the two technologies – laser and Cubesats – could, in the decade ahead, start challenging the other two infrastructure technologies. Not that they will be replaced, but potentially there will be increasingly more applications where the laser-satellite combination will push the other ones aside.

The obvious one, of course, is communication in rural and remote areas, but Transcelestial is also scoring success in port precincts. There is a massive demand for machine-to-machine applications, putting fibre in the concrete jungles of the ports is expensive and 5G has also problems penetrating through all the metal bodies in these places. Aviation is another industry that is looking at laser technologies.

A few weeks ago, I mentioned Geof Heydon who did put questions around the use of 5G in relation to autonomous vehicles. He indicated that most likely, laser technologies would do a better job here.

In short, we are entering an interesting new period in telecoms history and it will be very interesting to see how this will pan out over the coming years. If laser technologies are indeed able to make more serious inroads into the communications infrastructure world, then it will most like be in the form of HetNets (heterogeneous networks) — combining a range of different technologies.

Paul Budde

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