Incoming telecoms tech: CSPs are starting to form partnerships with quantum technology firms
Last year I was involved in a discussion group on quantum computing and quantum communications at a conference in London, and I have since had a few offline conversations following up from that. I usually don’t cover tech that is so far on the distant horizon, but this is a really interesting topic that no one really seems to be writing about yet, so here is the thrust of the conversations I’ve had (mainly with CSP people and some equipment manufacturers).
Three ways that quantum computing will supercharge telecoms networks
In physics, the word ‘quantum’ refers to the highly unusual properties of the sub-atomic world, where the laws of the standard Newtonian view of physics give way to a quite different set of rules. For the last century physicists have probed this world with increasingly more powerful technology, revealing a series of discoveries which led to ‘quantum information science’, a hugely more powerful path for the abilities of computation, cryptography and communication. At the heart of quantum information science, is the is the use of quantum-mechanical phenomena such as superposition and entanglement to perform computation using ‘qubits’.
Qubits are central to quantum computing and are analogous to ‘bits’ in a traditional computing. Like bits, qubits can be in a 0 or 1 quantum state, but they can also be in a ‘superposition’ state of both the 1 and 0. However, when qubits are measured the result is always either a 0 or a 1, the probabilities of the two outcomes depends on the quantum state they were in. Understanding and harnessing this range of probabilities of this superposition allows quantum computers to be many times faster and more powerful than traditional machines.
While this technology is still in a nascent state, many billions of dollars of R&D funding is being spent to advance our understanding of this science and to bring about some practical applications for business, including the telecommunications industry. Here we look at the first wave of applications which will potentially revolutionize the way our industry works over the coming decades:
1. Vast computational processing power
A useful way to imagine the difference between traditional and quantum computers is to think of a sphere. A classical bit can be in two states, like either of the two poles of the sphere. However, a qubit can be any point on the sphere, increasing the potential amount more information stored in a finite, but huge way.
In telecoms, the amount of data we move around and process is unparalleled in any other industry. As such, we have to make compromises based on how we do this, seeking to use the least or optimal computational power possible. In a quantum model, we can empower existing network paradigms like network management just by increasing the power of the processing happening throughout that network. Rather than building new network around quantum computing, it can be just inserted into the existing cloud infrastructure to boost things like capacity management, optical transmission, dynamic power management, big data analytics, personalized services, edge computing, dynamic x-haul, the list is endless.
2. Unhackable security measures
All computer security relies on the generation of random numbers, but traditional computing processes are not able to generate random numbers with the complexity of quantum randomness, meaning that code-breaking software can eventually predict patterns in existing security. In quantum security, Quantum cryptography that can be easily integrated into existing telecommunication networks is starting to happen in 2019, with SK Telecom in Korea announcing that it had already applied a Quantum Random Number Generator (QRNG) to the subscriber authentication center of its new 5G network and that it plans to apply Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) technology to the Seoul-Daejeon section of its LTE and 5G networks to prevent hacking. In the future we may see quantum blockchains guarding data privacy which will help to empower public cloud usage and drive out risks from hackers, by making all internet connections enterprise-grade secure.
The flip side of the security coin is that existing conventional non-quantum security systems will be exposed to hackers using quantum systems once the technology hardware is commercially available. The technology has the potential to nullify pretty much all encryption currently in use today, ranging from encryption that protects a credit cards on the internet, to stock exchange data transfers, to the protocols that guard military or governmental communications.
3. Quantum communication using entanglement
What Einstein once described as ‘spooky action at a distance’ is now a reasonably well understood phenomenon called ‘quantum entanglement’, where two particles that become inextricably linked so that whatever happens to one will automatically affect the other, irrespective of how far apart they are. Scientists have already proven this technology works over several miles of fiber optic connection.
The benefit of entanglement is that if the technology can be ramped up so that large amounts of information can be stored at one end of the connection, this information will also be present at the other end, without the need for transmission of data in a classical sense. Consequently this will end any latency issues in communications networks, and this means zero latency, effectively faster than lightspeed communications.
CSPs are starting to invest in quantum technologies:
Deutsche Telekom partnership with OPENQKD
The German incumbent has partnered with the OPENQKD quantum consortium to research how QKD systems can communicate with each other to form ‘QKD networks’, with a particular focus on developing quantum-safe data transmission. The partnership are developing a testbed in Berlin, using DT’s existing 100km fibre optic network, to explore telco-specific applications like the quantum encryption of 5G connections. Other tests are planned for the near future across a handful of other DT geographies in Europe.
TIM are using quantum technology for network optimisation
TIM claimed to be the first CSP in Europe to implement quantum computing algorithms in planning its next generation mobile networks in 2020. TIM has optimised planning of radio cells, framing the problem within a QUBO (quadratic unconstrained binary optimisation) algorithmic model, carried out on D-Wave's 2000Q quantum computer. D-Wave is one of the world’s first commercial quantum computing hardware, software and services companies. The first phase of the project uses the QUBO algorithm for planning cell IDs TIM’s VoLTE services, improving handover transactions from cell to cell. This is presumably part of TIMs advanced SON strategy, which has been a much discussed.
SK Telecom, Samsung and ID Quantique are putting quantum security into 5G handsets
SK Telecom and Samsung have developed the Galaxy A Quantum, the world’s first 5G smartphone equipped with a quantum random number generator chipset. The device features quantum enhanced cryptography that generates random numbers that enable two-factor authentication for T-ID, SK Telecom’s single sign-on service, biometric authentication for the SK Pay mobile payment service, along with a blockchain-based wallet to store and secure electronic documents such as certificates and insurance claims.