(Reuters) Leading researchers and engineers in the optics communication industry have gathered at the OFC Conference in Anaheim, California, the largest conference for optics communications, from March 20 through 24. One of the widely talked about topics include the threat of a possible ‘capacity crunch’.


As ‘capacity crunch’ is becoming an imminent issue with increasing demand for web-based and mobile devices, cables and optic fibers that transfer data will reach a limit but ‘light’ could be the answer to future’s problem.

In 2015, global mobile data traffic grew by 74% and 563 million mobile devices and connections were added, according to a recent report from Cisco. Some researchers say the current growth in data traffic could result in capacity issues and energy consumption leading to higher internet and mobile phone bills.

Datacenters, large networks of computer servers that transport data, are facing a potential dilemma of keeping up with consumer demand for data to run their devices like smartphones and tablets.

One solution to prevent a capacity crunch, some scientists say, is to transition from electricity to light in order to transfer data.

Attending this year’s OFC Conference is Japanese telecommunications company, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT), which is actively looking ahead into the future for a solution to keep up with the global demand of data. Mobile data traffic in Japan alone is estimated to grow by 1,000 times the 2010 levels by 2025.

Akimasa Kaneko, Executive Research Engineer of NTT, says: “Recently, we could see very high demand for interconnection between datacenter. This is due to the massive growth of smartphone traffic and some other new emerging services like Netflix. Everybody wants to connect between datacenter with very high speed.”

Telecommunication sectors are struggling to keep up with consumer demands due to the surge of streaming services and Internet TV. Looking ahead, datacenters will be required to handle exponential growth in data which can’t be done using existing technologies. With this challenge also comes a huge increase in electricity consumption to keep these datacenters running as well as an increase in service cost on the consumer end.

Intelligent devices like laptops, smartphones and tablets send and receive information through electronic cables and optics fibers. Surely, it’ll reach a limit in the amount of data it can send because the amount of data a single optic fiber can store will be maximized soon. Optical fibers are flexible and transparent strands that are as thin as a single piece of human hair. It transmits light to send information such as data.

Kaneko believes that adapting silicon photonic on a device level is an emerging and promising technology market. By taking advantage of the silicon photonic technology, silicon chips could be used to replace electric signals with pulses of light that can move data at a faster speed and longer distance.

“If we can use silicon photonic technology, we can integrate all kinds of different component in a single integrated chip. That brings us very small, highly cost effective and with lower power consumption optics. That’s the main intention, why we were thinking seriously to use silicon photonics,” he says.

NTT’s Senior Distinguished Researcher, Shinji Matsuo, addressed the issue at the OFC Conference. He hopes his research in energy-saving laser could help tackle the increasing size of Internet data traffic by mobile, Internet of Things (IoT), and social networking services and the energy datacenters end up using. Laser is a form of light that can help send data while decreasing the use of energy when transmitting the link.

Within silicon photonics technology, Matsuo is currently researching ways of inserting a laser into a silicon photonic device, which uses lights instead of electricity to move and manipulate data. If such photonic devices could be built into an intelligent device such a smartphone or into datacenters, this form of light could help reduce the cost of data traffic and the energy it uses up to send data. His research to adapt light could reduce the amount of energy datacenters use by 40%.

Matsuo says “When you send out information through light, you don’t use energy during transmission. However, when you send out information through electricity, you use energy when you send it and during transmission. That’s a huge difference so it’s important to start using light in devices. When you do that, you can save a lot of energy and money. Eventually, tablets could last longer. Now, we have to charge it everyday but eventually you only need to charge it once or twice a week. That’s the kind of technology I want to bring about.”

Their challenge takes us to the sustainable communication network in the future world.

Various ideas and possible solutions have been presented at this year’s conference in a bid to prevent “capacity crunch”, that enhance efficiency for existing network communication by developing both software and hardware technology.

NTT’s Photonics-Electronics Convergence Laboratory Researcher, Takushi Kazama, conducts one such research. He is presenting a research on light and how to improve light’s data transmission quality.

Kazama says “When light travels a long distance, the light becomes weaker and darker over the duration. The light needs to be boosted so a conventional optical amplifier is needed in between. When you send light over a long distance and amplify it a number of times, noise accumulates which becomes a problem. Noise breaks down the information light carries so that’s why there is a limit as to how far we can send light. In our research, we are trying to lower the threshold of noise from the conventional optical amplifier.”

As the power of light decreases over distance, the introduction of excess noise is theoretically inevitable when conventional amplifier is used to amplify light. Noise leads to a loss of important information like when a corrupt audio file causes the sound to distort from the original. Due to the insertion of noise during recharge, achievable transmission distance and the amount of information have limits. Kazama believes his optical amplifier could break the theoretical limit on noise property of conventional amplifier and provide an ultra-low-noise amplification, which can lead to extend transmission distance and capacity.

Kazama’s amplifier is able to boost the power of light being transmitted with the periodically-poled lithium niobate (PPLN) waveguide chip. The crystal waveguide chip, which is roughly 5cm in length, is created with high precision as to create a smooth pathway for the light to pass through for low-noise amplification while travelling.

Bright ideas such as these are attracting international attention. Platforms like the OFC Conference help light a way out of the impending need for data in the world of communication.

Jefferey Rahn, participant of OFC says “We are very excited about the amount of power reduction you can get by using lasers to get data in and out of data centers.”

Kevin Lu, who flew from Shenzhen, China to attend this year’s event says “Optical communications is absolute key and lasers are the basis.”

The researchers at the OFC Conference are going ahead of the curve by inventing core technologies that will bring innovations to the future world of communication.