Future of metro-wide fibre rings clear on Europe’s western edge

5 Dec 2010

In one of Ireland’s most picturesque towns located on one of Europe’s most western-most coasts, another piece of telecoms history was made last night.

As rock and roll royalty belted out the tunes from a tiny church in Dingle, Co Kerry, the ability to broadcast to numerous locations by tuning the speed of light on a single strand of fibre optic was ably demonstrated.

As far as John Dunne, co-founder of Dublin firm Intune Networks is concerned, the broadcasting of the ‘Other Voices’ performance by Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker and Richard Hawley from St James’ Church in Dingle to several local hotels and pubs is just a tiny demonstration of what really is in store. This is just a year after a similar feat was demonstrated during Snow Patrol’s performance at ‘Other Voices’.

Dunne envisages a period in the not too distant future where Intune’s technology will enable potentially millions of people across wide geographic areas to be able to enjoy simultaneous speed-of-light entertainment on demand from a variety of telecoms providers.

Dunne’s vision is so vast on this one that he considers the internet a mere “application” of what’s coming – a world where high-definition gaming, TV, internet and video conferencing will reach thousands of homes with zero latency.

While revellers in nearby hostelries were able to interact last night with the band playing in the church down the street via fibre purposely laid out in the iconic Kerry town for the occasion, what Intune is trying to resolve is a growing headache for telecoms operators around the world.

The end of the internet as we know it?

Put simply, the internet as we know in terms of internet protocol (IP) traffic is barely able to keep up with demand. For example, when the iPhone debuted for the first time, mobile operators complained of a two-thirds spike in traffic caused by a tiny minority of early adopters.

The sheer stress being put on existing copper and cable networks by the growing volume of people sharing pictures and videos on Facebook, uploading videos to YouTube and holding real-time video conferences on Skype is leading to greater threats of “brown out”.

What Intune’s technology does is use tunable lasers to virtualise the various streams of light that travel down fibre optic cables in such a way that by assigning colours and identities to each wavelength several telecoms companies can be serving thousands of businesses and consumers with high-speed telecoms, television, high-definition console gaming and a myriad of other services simultaneously.

According to Dunne, this has the capacity to significantly reduce the economies of scale required to invest in next-generation networks. In July, the Government committed a further €5m to the next two phases of the Exemplar Network being built by Intune to provide a testbed for global carriers and technology firms who want to test future applications as well as build future networks affordably. This will see the Exemplar Network grow from circling Dublin in the second phase to being a nationwide entity by the third phase in 2013.

Communications Minister Eamon Ryan TD said the first phase of the Exemplar Network, in which the State invested €10m with Intune Networks, has already created 140 jobs and that by the time of the third phase thousands of jobs, from digital media to high-end computing, green tech and life sciences, could be created as organisations will be attracted by the speed and capability of the network.

Intune has in the past year raised more than €25m in venture capital investment, including a €22m round led by Dermot Desmond and Kernel Capital, as well as recently a €3m round led by Novusmodus. The company recently expanded into the US, with the opening of a Boston office and was awarded a major EU contract as part of a consortium involving telecom players Telefónica and PrimeTel under the EU 7th Framework.

The end of latency?

“We don’t play in the access network space, what people typically consider broadband signals; we are one mile back,” said Dunne who began Intune with John Farrell in 1999 after the pair studied photonics at UCD.

“We are the second mile in; what we’ve done is allow electronic packet streams to be separately managed using different wavelengths. This is different from existing switches, where the different streams are switching inside the switch fabric and it is difficult to manage which flow gets priority.

“What Intune has done is from second mile in use optical switching and separate by wavelengths the different flows. In effect this takes the switching function which for the last 25 years done was done electronically and push this into optical layer

“The result of this is you can manage the quality of service and delay and latency in a much more controlled way, pre-engineering the performance you want into network before you bill for it.”

The other result is potentially multiple telecoms operators operating ultra high-speed services across hundreds of thousands of homes and business on a few strands of fibre.

And so last night in Dingle on the western edge of Europe, as the lights went down on the strains of Cocker and co’s music, light bulbs were already flashing in the minds of future carriers who are now willing and able to deliver the future.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years