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Key Insights from TOP Conference 2024

headshot of Paul Momtahan

March 5, 2024
By Paul Momtahan
Director, Solution Marketing

Now in its third year, the Telecommunications, Optics & Photonics (TOP) Conference was held on February 21 and 22 in London. This is a relatively new event from the same team behind the ECOC Exhibition. It was a smaller event with maybe 100 or so attendees. The majority of attendees and speakers came from the U.K., and it definitely had a U.K. focus, though some people had traveled from further afield, including Japan and the U.S. That said, its program covered a wide range of topics including telecommunications, quantum communications, photonic components, free-space optics, data centers, telecommunications/photonics for radio access networks (RAN), and network planning. With this event being on my doorstep, it was somewhat of a no-brainer to attend. I also wanted to support my colleague Harald Bock, who kicked off the conference’s first day with a keynote presentation.

Infinera Keynote

Harald Bock presenting his keynote at TOP 2024 London

Figure 1: Infinera’s Harald Bock presenting his keynote at TOP Conference 2024

Harald talked about the significant industry achievement of increasing fiber capacity by roughly 30% every year since the turn of the century, resulting in an increase of more than an order of magnitude. In addition to discussing the past levers that achieved this increase, Harald raised questions about the future evolution of capacity when spectral efficiency is now running into the Shannon limit, baud rates beyond 200 Gbaud seem very challenging to achieve, and the benefit of CMOS process node evolution beyond 2 nm is not yet clear. He explained how reductions in network power consumption are starting to turn into the key focus area for the industry, along with openness and disaggregation, which enable faster innovation adoption. He also discussed how coherent pluggables are expected to play a role in reducing power consumption and increasing network efficiency.

Beyond Shannon

Several of the topics Harald covered were taken up by other presentations. Several “Beyond Shannon” presentations looked at space-division multiplexing (SDM), including uncoupled and coupled multi-core fibers, multi-mode fibers, and leveraging new bands (i.e., S-band, O-band, E-band, U-band). The software operations of multi-vendor DWDM networks were also expanded on in several presentations.

Quantum Security

There were a number of sessions on quantum security – that is, how to make communications secure once quantum computers can crack the key exchange mechanisms used today, such as Diffie-Helman, that are used for symmetrical encryption, which is itself quantum-safe. The pros and cons of when to adopt new post-quantum algorithms compared to today’s more proven algorithms was discussed in light of the recent cracking of a promising algorithm by a Belgian team. The pros (uncrackable) and cons (optical amplification cannot be used, challenges with distance, etc.) of quantum key distribution (QKD) as an alternative were also discussed, with quantum satellites proposed as a key option for enabling a global quantum key distribution network. The status of standards for integrating QKD with MACsec and IPSec encryption was discussed. Distributed Symmetric Key Exchange (DSKE) was also covered as a third option for making encryption quantum-safe.

Free-space Optics

A related topic was free-space optics, with several presentations looking at how to get light beamed down from a satellite into the optical fiber without an optical-electrical-optical (OEO) stage – a key requirement for global QKD. Other free-space optic topics included Li-Fi, which uses overhead lasers as a high-capacity and more secure alternative to Wi-Fi within buildings, and a quantum ATM that could deliver a QKD on demand to your mobile phone. I even learned a new word, “etendue,” which is the area of the receiver multiplied by its field of view.

Network Planning

Network planning came up in multiple sessions, including a very interesting presentation from Andy Reid, formerly at BT and now doing a Ph.D. at the University of Bristol. Andy described the process network operators go through when designing an optical network, starting with the requirements of the traffic demands, from the packet network often taken as a given and the fiber and ducts often considered a fixed constraint. However, he explained that lower-cost optical technology could impact the cost and prices of packet-based services, which would then impact the packet bandwidth demands placed on the optical layer. Likewise, the fiber and ducts were not fixed constraints and could be expanded at a cost.

Amplifiers and Lasers

Several presentations covered the evolution of EDFA amplifiers and the pump lasers that power them. Evolution vectors include reduced size, with micro EDFAs now used to achieve 0 dBm transmit power in silicon photonics-based QSFP-DDs; improved power consumption efficiency; higher transmit power, greater temperature range/stability; and parallelism, which is currently limited to two pump lasers per device but SDM and Super C/Super L are possible drivers for more integration. There was also a presentation on a new type of laser, a photonic crystal surface-emitting laser (PCSEL), which would appear to have strong potential for amplifier pump laser applications.

The U.K. and Optical

A final topic of the conference was the U.K.’s role in the optical ecosystem, including how to make the U.K. more competitive. Leveraging its research strengths and world-renowned universities, the U.K. has long played a pioneering role in optical communications, with groundbreaking work on optical fibers in the 1960s under Charles K. Kao and the invention and development of EDFA optical amplifiers under Robert J. Mears and David N. Payne Topics included how to help ideas go from academia to start-ups to volume manufacturing, whether the U.K. could be successful without a domestic systems vendor, and whether the U.K. needed a domestic photonic semiconductor foundry.

Overall, it was an interesting event with an eclectic mix of topics and a great prelude to the upcoming OFC Conference and Exhibition in San Diego later this month.