Page last updated at 17:12 GMT, Friday, 1 August 2008 18:12 UK

Web speeds to increase 'ten-fold'

Dan Simmons looks at the ways researchers hope to stop the internet grinding to a halt as the demands placed on it continue to grow.

A computer screen showing patient information streamed from an ambulance
Wimax allows patient information and video to be sent in real-time
The world is hungry for bandwidth.

The first 1.3 billion people are already connected to the net and the next billion are keen to join in too.

Internet traffic is doubling every two years and there have been fears that this could overwhelm the net.

It is not about e-mail or web pages, but the demand for video and audio.

People want YouTube, TV or iPlayer (a BBC video on-demand service which is expected to account for 10% of UK traffic by the end of the year) and soon the net will be asked to deliver high-definition surround-sound TV, probably along with lots of things yet to be imagined.

"Ten years ago the internet was one tenth as fast as it is today and it was perfectly adequate and society worked perfectly well," said Andy Lippman from the MIT Media Lab.

"But with 10 times faster the opportunities to move all sorts of new data like video and voice and presence through the network immediately arose," he said. "So this is a case where we were choking off imagination."

100Gbps internet

Currently most of the cables used for the net's fibre optic backbone carry 10 Gigabits per second (Gbps) - the equivalent of about 400 HDTV streams.

It's as if on a highway, we've squeezing four or even eight cars in the place where one car would have been otherwise
Nortel's Digital Optical Systems manager, John Sitch

But industry players like Cisco, Infusion, and Comtel say they can achieve 10 times that capacity using the same fibre optic cables.

One of the companies leading the way is Nortel in Dallas, USA.

Digital Optical Systems manager John Sitch showed how one cable can reliably deliver data while transferring 10 times the amount of information it usually does - 100Gbps.

Watch the 100Gbps demonstration

The feat is possible because the data light signals are phased and then "read" in a different way.

"It's as if we've changed from AM radio to FM radio and the improved fidelity means we can put more information into the same bandwidth," said Mr Sitch.

"It's as if on a highway, we've squeezing four or even eight cars in the place where one car would have been otherwise.

"Of course, if we were to try to do this without the digital signal processing we use at both ends of the link then there'd be an awful pileup," he added.

Smoother video

The signal processing and error correction, done by boxes placed either end of the data cables, has led to commercially available speeds of 40Gbps this year.

A woman watching internet tv
Will higher bandwidth increase uptake of IPTV?
This extra capacity is expected to drive bandwidth hungry applications like telepresence, which is similar to video conferencing but more lifelike. Virtual learning will also benefit.

Such things are already available, but the extra bandwidth makes them more reliable and improves the whole experience.

That greater bandwidth could also improve internet TV (IPTV) by offering greater interactivity and the possibility to pause the action and pick it up again - perhaps - on a different device.

Blanket coverage

While work is going on in the backbone and at the edges of networks, there is debate about which wireless technology will prove most useful while we are out and about.

"People are wired at home, they're wired in the office - it's the space between where there are challenges," said Scott Wickware, Nortel's general manager of its Wimax technology.

Wimax has been described as wi-fi on steroids. Rather than cover a home or street, one Wimax base station can cover a whole town.

3G can deliver a certain level in between, but Wimax can deliver so much more and in a much more cost effective way
Nortel's Wimax general manager, Scott Wickware
Video can be streamed on the train just as easily as in the coffee shop.

The technology, which has been seen as a successor to third-generation (3G) networks, has been developed over several years and is only now starting to take off.

"Wimax is about three to five times faster than 3G and about five times cheaper than 3G," said Mr Wickware.

"3G can deliver a certain level in between, but Wimax can deliver so much more and in a much more cost effective way," he said.

LTE device
The LTE technology has enabled mobile download speeds of 50Mbps
The technology may not end up being used by consumers keen to download movies. Instead it may be put to much more serious uses.

Rather than rely on successive wi-fi hotspots, ambulances in future may instead connect and communicate via Wimax which can use one mast to cover a large area.

That could be a lifesaver, enabling unbroken, real-time, high speed communications between the paramedics and doctors back at the hospital, which could include video, X-rays and electrocardiogram (ECG) readings.

Wimax has been plagued by regulatory battles, taking much longer to get off the ground than first expected.

"There are frequency issues, and operators making the choice between it and other technologies. I think we'll see very soon which technology they'll chose, and how they will offer service," said Mr Wickware.

Instant downloads

The mobile firms are also looking to accelerate data speeds over their networks. Companies like Motorola, Siemens, Nortel, and LG are now working on future mobile download speeds of about 30Mbps, which is about five to 10 times faster than current home broadband connections. Upload speeds are almost as quick.

Wimax demo, BBC
Dan Simmons watched video streamed to a device via Wimax
With this technology, called Long Term Evolution, in your mobile a song could be downloaded instantly and a movie for the handset would take a few seconds.

Nortel's trials of LTE produced a download speed of 50Mbps, and it believes it is capable of even more.

But LTE is still a way off becoming a reality. Its success or otherwise will in part depend on reducing the size and power needs of the chipset.

And it is not just us humans that are putting a strain on the net's sinews. The internet is being relied upon by an ever greater number of devices.

Andy Lippman from the Media Lab believes data traffic will mushroom as the world gets smarter and devices that are dumb now, such as cameras, stores, parking meters, cars, start generating data.

"There's a flood of that," he said, "more than all the phone calls in the world combined."

"This is suddenly being generated and stored and becoming accessible to you while you're on the move," he said. "That's the multiplier for what's going to be needed for data transmission in the future."

Intel seeks wireless unification
03 Jun 08 |  Technology
Nokia pushes '4G wireless' plans
15 Apr 08 |  Technology
Google backs 'white space' wi-fi
25 Mar 08 |  Technology
BBC and ISPs clash over iPlayer
09 Apr 08 |  Technology
Net gridlock by 2010 study warns
20 Nov 07 |  Technology

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

banner watch listen bbc sport Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific