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Researchers eye liquid to boost Net speed

Could watering down the Internet actually increase Internet speeds and capacity? Data moves across the Internet at high speeds on fibre-optic networks. University of Illinois physicist John Rogers has found that droplets of fluid in fibre optic channels can increase the speeds of data-carrying photons. His micro-fluid optical fibers could be key to super-fast delivery of live and streaming multi-media. Using liquid to modify fibre optic properties can direct data flows more efficiently by decreasing distortion and data loss. While not in commercial use, the liquid experiments have moved from lab demonstrations to the prototype stage.

However, don't expect to see the backbone of the Internet ripped out any time soon to be replaced by liquid plumbing. There is an abundance of fibre optic cable in the ground, so the industry is in no hurry to embrace new technologies. In addition, existing fibre optic networks have evolved from carrying a single optical fibre to carrying multiple signals, increasing the overall capacity of current networks.

While the Internet can handle current traffic demands, the speed at which consumers and businesses access it, and the volume of data zipping across it, is dramatically increasing.

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Santa Clara, California-based Cisco Systems, Inc. has projected that Internet bandwidth will more than quadrupling by 2012. As the overall bandwidth of the Internet reaches capacity, new technologies, like micro-fluid optical fibers or silicon based networks, will find their way to market. In addition, by 2012, today's high-speed Internet access will feel as if it moved at a turtle's pace, just as today's broadband Internet access makes dial-up feel like it moved at a snail's pace.

Toronto-based Rogers Communications Inc. offers cable Internet access at 50 Megabits per second (Mbps), says Dermot O'Carroll, senior vice president, network engineering and operations. This is about 1,000 times faster than dial-up at its peak of 56 Kilobits per second (Kbps). Wireless broadband speeds were 7 Mbps two years ago. They are now up to 21 Mbps. From a business perspective, companies often have large pipes to the Internet but individual employees might have only 5 to 10 Mbps access but not find their work throttled.

Even though the Internet backbone can accommodate high speeds, the average website cannot deliver data as fast as broadband access. But that is not a deterrent to the need for speed, says Mr. O'Carroll who was involved in first trial of fibre optics in Canada. "At today's speed you can run multiple sessions simultaneously - download applications, watch streaming video, play multi-player games and chat live. And you can have multiple computers in your home or office doing different things."

Larger enterprises tend to have dedicated fibre connection from remote offices to their data centre, or piggy back on telecom providers' data pipes. This allows e-mail and file transmission as well voice and video calls and conferences to zip across the internal network (as opposed to the public Internet) with few, if any, hic-ups. But the public Internet is starting to pull even with dedicated networks.

As high speed Internet access "becomes ubiquitous," companies will deploy applications take advantage of the speed, Mr. O'Carroll says. Consumers are already making long distance video calls and live training sessions are occurring online too. A photography buff, today's broadband Internet access allows Mr. O'Carroll to take live Adobe Photoshop image editing tutorials online. "This kind of application becomes more economical to offer as more people have high speed access." In other words, as access speeds increase, companies can afford to offer more services that take advantage of higher speeds. As they begin to offer more services, they upgrade their backend-the speed at which their websites and applications connect to the Internet-to ensure services are delivered reliably.

Part of the Internet's growth stems from wireless broadband access. Although many homes and businesses are hard wired to the Internet, many home and business users connect wirelessly to the Internet using WiFi, a wireless local area network. But the real magic will come when people can move from home to the office or a coffee shop or client's site, all while staying seamlessly connected to the Internet at rocket speeds, says Mr. O'Carroll.

Having said that, he finds it difficult to predict what that constantly connected "magic" will mean in terms of applications. YouTube and most of the social networking sites were not around five years ago, he points out, and there is no predicting the applications that will be around five years from now. "Most of them have not yet been conceived. But as you increase ubiquitous connectivity and speed, new applications will happen. Maybe even a kind of collective intelligence that we can't yet fathom," Mr. O'Carroll says. However, he does not rule out "a lot more of the same, only faster" as well.

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