Is terahertz wireless the future of data transfer?

Is terahertz wireless the future of data transfer?

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Technology companies are constantly looking for ways to improve the speed of data transfer in order to cope with the increasing demands of today's environment. But while innovations such as fibre-optic cabling are becoming more common in many installations, effective wireless communications are likely to be just as important as more activities switch to smartphones and tablets.

A new technology recently introduced by researchers at Japan's National Institute of Information and Communications Technology, Hiroshima University, and Panasonic Corporation could help achieve this in the coming years, as it has been able to reach speeds of more than 100Gbps over a single channel, offering comparable speeds to many fibre connections.

The test uses a terahertz transmitter to send digital data using the 300GHz spectrum band - a much higher frequency than most of today's Wi-Fi and 4G networks. These typically use bands in the 800MHz to 4GHz range, though in-development 5G services are expected to make use of of around 100GHz.

While higher frequencies offer more spectrum for transmitting data, these signals have limited range and are more susceptible to disruption, which has in the past restricted their practicality. ISP Review notes that operators need to build much more complicated and expensive networks that include large numbers of distribution points in order to overcome these limitations.

However, the transmission technology used by the Japanese researchers claims to deliver ten times the power of previous versions, which could potentially even offer ultra high-speed links to satellites.

Professor Minoru Fujishima from Hiroshima University said: "We usually talk about wireless data rates in megabits per second or gigabits per second. But we are now approaching terabits per second using a plain simple single communication channel. Fibre optics realised ultra high-speed wired links, and wireless links have been left far behind."

He added that another new possibility that terahertz wireless could deliver is high-speed, minimum latency communications.

"Optical fibres are made of glass and the speed of light slows down in fibres. That makes fibre optics inadequate for applications requiring real-time responses," Prof Fujishima said, which means operators must make a choice between high data rate and minimum latency, because they cannot have them both. 

"But with terahertz wireless, we could have light-speed minimum-latency links supporting fibre-optic data rates."

However, ISP Review noted there remain several hurdles to overcome before this promise is able to become an everyday reality for wireless data transfer. It noted that despite the Japanese team's claims, improved transmission distance remains the biggest caveat for such high-frequency wireless networks.

While boosting power can help address this, there are still "very significant physics challenges" to overcome, not to mention the task of shrinking such equipment into useful portable forms such as a smartphone.

"The Japanese team has taken us a big step forward, but they're still near the bottom of a rather tall staircase," the publication noted. "But at least they're on the staircase rather than just looking at it.

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