Could quantum science unlock the full potential of 5G?

Could quantum science unlock the full potential of 5G?
Can the quality of 5G mobile connectivity be improved by turning the laws of physics on their head? We cautiously wade into the world of quantum mechanics to explore how it may one day improve telecoms networks.

Quantum mechanics. Entanglement. Superpositions. Quarks. Wave function collapse.

We’ve already covered some of the weirder ways that boffins are using emerging 5G technology, but some researchers are now turning to quantum science to revolutionise connectivity.

This week, BT announced that researchers have trialled a ground-breaking new quantum technology to create ultra-sensitive 5G receivers that increase the capability of mobile networks and IoT devices, potentially maximising network coverage while lowering power and running costs.

Howard Watson, CTO of BT, said: “BT’s investment in cutting edge R&D plays a central role in ensuring the UK remains a network technology leader… Although it’s early days for the technology, we’re proud to be playing an instrumental role in developing cutting edge science.”

Atomic Radio Frequency (RF) receiver technology uses a quantum effect called Electromagnetically Induced Transparency to form a highly sensitive electric field detector of “excited” atoms, over 100x more sensitive than traditional receivers and capable of picking up much weaker radio waves than conventional receivers; if achieved, this heightened sensitivity could bring mobile networks much closer to one hundred percent coverage.

According to the study, appearing in last December’s edition of the Journal of Lightwave Technology, researchers propose this technology could be miniaturised to create a “rugged high-sensitivity receiver for 5G signals… applicable to readily available low cost components,” noting that the tech remains in the “very early stages” of development.

A similar device, developed by the US Army’s DEVCOM Army Research Laboratory, can analyse the full spectrum of radio frequency, using laser beams to create excited Rydberg atoms above a microwave circuit, to boost the amount of detectable spectrum.

Quantum mechanics exploits the simple yet mind-bending fact that, on a small enough scale, the rules of nature as we think we know them have a habit of breaking down. Quantum science has already had a monumental impact on the development of telecoms tech, steering the development of modern semiconductors, fibre optics, GPS and much more.

A few years ago, Chinese scientists set the stage for a quantum internet by sending a satellite into space and using it to transmit entangled particles back to Earth. Entanglement – or, as Albert Einstein dubbed it, “Spooky Action at a Distance” – put simply, means that the states and actions of two particles are linked and will act as one, regardless of distance.

Some developers and manufacturers are already preparing for the seismic effect quantum technology could have on the telecoms industry, such as China Telecom, which has launched an almost “unhackable” smartphone using “single photons in quantum superposition states by which the key is embedded to guarantee unconditional security between distant parties,” while IDEMIA has developed a quantum-proof 5G SIM card that protects users from the threat of quantum decryption – as if email phishing wasn’t enough to worry about!

The humble researchers at BT Labs in Martlesham have been leading the charge on quantum technology in telecoms, announcing a new method of ultra-secure communications over a new type of hollow core fibre cable, and partnering with Toshiba to build the world’s first quantum-secured network for EY, transmitting encrypted data between the firm’s sites at London Bridge and Canary Wharf at 10Gbps.

Though the marriage of telecoms and quantum science may still seem like some far-flung notion that will fly above the heads of many – this author included – it’s worth remembering how these technologies can rapidly cascade into everyday use, and that the sci-fi technologies of today can become commonplace tomorrow in the blink of an eye.

Perhaps in five years, even billing could be processed at the quantum level?