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Thursday, April 14, 2005

Nanotechnology and the Future of the Telecommunications Industry

Yesterday, the IEEE’s Committee on Communications and Infrastructure Policy released a white paper claiming that the development of “Gigabit Networks” should be a national priority. “Failure to act,” the report continued, will “relegate the U.S. telecommunications infrastructure to an inferior competitive position.”

I wholeheartedly agree with this conclusion (along with the committee’s calls for regulatory flexibility) and believe this warning should be heeded not just by national lawmakers but by the nanotechnology community as well. This is for three separate and distinct reasons.

First, as the fields of biotechnology, semiconductor/computer technology, material sciences, chemistry, physics and a host of medical-related market segments all continue to delve further into the nano-sciences, it is obvious that the scientific and technological advances this research will generate will also yield ever vaster amounts of voice, data, image and video information. In turn, this information will need to be converted into bit streams in order to be shared as widely as possible with fellow researchers. Today’s networks (far too many of which still remain at the megabyte-level) are simply too slow to handle this avalanche of information.

Beyond this admittedly parochial concern, the second reason the nanotech community needs to get behind this initiative is because a Gigabyte Network will allow consumers to take advantage of the myriad of promising developments nanotechnology is enabling. For instance, new powerful atomic force microscopes are helping material sciences understand new materials down to the atomic level. To take advantage of these startling developments, new powerful software tools are being developed. However, these software models are so large that only gigabyte networks can transmit them efficiently and effectively. In still other fields, quantum dots are leading to highly detailed medical images, carbon nanotubes are being utilized to produce data storage devices orders of magnitude more powerful than anything on the market; and, of course, carbon nanotubes and nanowires hold great potential for developing ever smaller computers and nanosensors.

These developments are all fine and well but they will only be able to meet their full potential if they can be shared with—and wirelessly connected to—the end user. Only a radically more powerful network can do this. Moreover, bandwidth 5,000 times faster than today’s current bandwidth will unleash a variety of new products and open as-yet-untold markets. (To understand this, just consider how improvements in data storage led to the development of the Ipod and its concomitant markets. Now imagine how continued advances in data storage and super-powerful computers—when coupled with equally powerful advances in bandwidth—will lead to similar new products and markets).

Lastly, leaders in the field of nanotechnology—especially executives at companies like NanoOpto and NeoPhotonics—must step forward and explain how their advances in creating optical components capable of manipulating light via nanoscale structures can not only increase bandwidth and break cost-performance barriers for next-generation fiber optic networks, but also address the FTTP (fiber-to-the-premise) product market. The bottom-line is that the telecommunications executives need to better understand how nanotechnology can help their industry solve some of its most vexing problems.

If the nanotechnology community can do these three things, it will not only create new markets for its own nanotech-enabled products, it will facilitate even more rapid advances in the nanosciences. This, in turn, is likely to continue to fuel advances in the telecommunication industry. It’s a classic win-win situation and it is why the nanotech community should be promoting a Gigabyte Network.

Jack Uldrich