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What Happened to Quantum Networks?

Close-up of a quantum computer. Photo: Negro Elkha / Adobe Stock

A few years ago, there were a lot of predictions that we’d see broadband networks converting to quantum technology because of the enhanced security. As happens with many new technologies, quantum computing is advancing at a slower pace than the wild predictions that accompanied the launch of the new technology.

What are quantum computing and quantum networks? The computers we use today are all Turing machines that convert data into bits represented by either a 1 or a 0 and then process data linearly through algorithms. Quantum computing takes advantage of a property found in subatomic particles called superposition, meaning that particles can operate simultaneously in more than one state, such as an electron that is at two different levels. Quantum computing mimics this subatomic world by creating what are called qubits, which can exist as both a 1 and a 0 at the same time. One cubit can perform two calculations at once, but when many cubits are used simultaneously, the number of simultaneous calculations grows exponentially. A four-cubit computer can perform 24 or 16 calculations at the same time. Some quantum computers are currently capable of 1,000 cubits, or 21000 simultaneous calculations.

We are starting to see quantum computing in the telecom space. In 2020, Verizon conducted a network trial using quantum key distribution technology (QKD). This uses a method of encryption that might be unhackable. Photons are sent one at a time alongside an encrypted fiber optic transmission. If anybody attempts to intercept or listen to the encrypted light stream, the polarization of the photons is impacted, and the sender and receiver of the message both know instantly that the transmission is no longer safe. The theory is that this will stop hackers before they can learn enough to crack into and analyze a data stream. Verizon also added a second layer of security using a quantum random number generator that updates the encryption key randomly in a way that can’t be predicted.

A few months ago, EPB, the municipal fiber provider in Chattanooga, announced a partnership with Qubitekk to let customers on the City’s fiber network connect to a quantum computer. The City is hoping to attract companies to the City that want to benefit from quantum computing. The City has already heard from Fortune 500 companies, startups, and government agencies that are interested in using quantum computer links.

EBP has established the quantum network separate from its last-mile network to accommodate the special needs of a quantum network transmission. The quantum network uses more than 200 existing dark fibers to establish customer links on the quantum network. EPB engineers will constantly monitor the entangled particles on the quantum network.

Quantum computing is most useful for applications that require large numbers of rapid calculations. For example, quantum computing could produce faster and more detailed weather maps in real-time. Quantum computing is being used in research on drugs or exotic materials where scientists can compare multiple complex molecular structures easily. One of the most interesting current uses is that quantum computing can greatly speed up the processing power of artificial intelligence that is now sweeping the world.

It doesn’t look like quantum networking is coming to most fiber networks any time soon. The biggest holdup is the creation of efficient and cost-effective quantum computers. Today, most of these computers are in labs at universities or government facilities. The potential for quantum computing is so large that the technology could explode onto the scene when the hardware issue is solved.

By Doug Dawson, President at CCG Consulting

Dawson has worked in the telecom industry since 1978 and has both a consulting and operational background. He and CCG specialize in helping clients launch new broadband markets, develop new products, and finance new ventures.

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