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Canadian-Owned Lab Invents Switch So Fast It's Ahead of Its Time

The inventors of the terabit switch like to boast it could handle all the telephone voice traffic in the US on Mother's Day - the busiest day of the year for phone calls in the United States - and do the job in about one second.

Designed to handle huge amounts of data, the terabit switch is held to be one of three big telecommunication inventions of the Harlow, England, laboratory of Northern Telecom Ltd., a Canadian company with 34 research facilities all over the world.

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Scientists say this "opto-electronic" switch is a significant advance. Even though the technology is ahead of itself, it will be useful to have around.

"The problem is we can move information faster than computers can process it," says Ian Angus, of Angus Telemangement, a Toronto-based consultancy. "There is no question we will get to terabit speeds. The key for Northern Telecom is to be ready to market it at the right time. There are other companies working on similar products."

Northern Telecom is Canada's biggest research and development company. But, says Peter Selway, director of operations at its Advanced Technology Centre here, "the [Harlow] laboratory's small enough for people to talk to each other. We find we can come up with innovative ideas and new product opportunities that would have been more difficult in a lab that was either a lot bigger or if it were only single-discipline."

The lab has had three owners - American, British, and Canadian. Its first technology breakthrough was the concept of "pulse-tone modulation," which allows speech to be digitized and transmitted free of distortion, something we take for granted today.

"Alec Reeves, who worked here until 1974, invented the concept of pulse-tone modulation in 1937," Mr. Selway says.

Pulse-tone modulation, like the terabit switch, was an idea that was too early for its time. "The transistor hadn't been invented, so he [Mr. Reeves] didn't have the technology to do it. But the concept dated back to his inventions in 1937, so he's the father of the digital revolution."

The second discovery was fiber optics, using lasers and fiber wire to move voice and data. Fiber optics has replaced copper wire as the backbone of modern telecommunications systems around the world. Again, the idea came before the technology was ready to make it work.

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"Charles Kay was working here in this lab, where he proposed high-capacity optics for transmission. So fiber optics was born here," Selway says. "There was a lot going on around the world, but he put the story together and published a very influential paper in 1966."

The third big invention came last year when engineers at Harlow invented the terabit switch. A terabit is a million-million bits of information. That is 25 times faster than the fastest switch sold today.

So far, no one needs a switch with that much power. But it is thought that it will be needed in about five years for things such as people calling to have movies shipped over phone or cable lines, or huge traffic on the Internet. The size of the digital pipe that information is pushed through is called bandwidth.

"Video is the biggest user of bandwidth. When every home in a metropolitan area has live video, it will be too much for electronic switches," Selway says. "Our terabit switch is an optically [laser] connected set of electronic switches. It is much better to connect them with optics than with wire."

When the Harlow lab started in the 1930s, Northern Telecom was just the manufacturing arm of Bell Canada.

Nortel has developed into a major world telecommunications manufacturer making everything from telephone switches and telephones to stations for wireless telephones. Its biggest research laboratory is in Ottawa, the center of telecommunications research in Canada.

The company's sales in 1995 were $10.67 billion and it spent $1.67 billion - about 15 percent of revenue - at its research arm, Nortel Technology. Out of its 63,000 employees, 18,000 are engineers and scientists.

"If you put all your R&D in Canada, you would only have access to the local universities and the local talent bases. If you spread your sites around the world, you've got access to the global technology base," Selway says.

The Harlow center works on its specialized projects, including developing better antennas for wireless telephones.

"The sun never sets on our research network," says Peter Janecek, a spokesman for the company in Toronto. "Somewhere in the world, we are always open."

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