Imagine not being able to stream movies whenever you like on Netflix, Crave or YouTube, schedule important meetings on Zoom, or place your meal orders remotely through SkipTheDishes or Uber Eats.
One alarming effect of the COVID‑19 pandemic is that telecommunications networks are fast approaching full capacity. As people increasingly work from home, and businesses and services set up virtual operations, networks are groaning under the burden of vastly increased streaming, online meetings, cyber shopping and an extraordinary shift to distance activities. Statistics show that network users have been spending some 12 hours a day with media such as TV, TV‑connected devices, radios, computers, smartphones and tabletsFootnote 1. As these activities spread during the COVID‑19 pandemic, they are placing unforeseen loads on networks—possibly increased by as much as 60%. Until now, service providers have been equipped to meet a 30 to 40% increase in bandwidth demandFootnote 2.
Options for beefing up bandwidth are to either lay down more fibre‑optic networks or cram more information into existing infrastructures. The former is expensive, time‑consuming and invasive. The latter—coherent optical technology— is a more cost‑effective and higher‑capacity optical transport concept that does not require new fibre. Instead, it enables suppliers to replace obsolete parts in their networks that boost speed, quality and bandwidth.
"Pioneered in Canada a decade ago by Ciena, coherent optical communications is an ideal solution for quickly expanding these networks in place," says Reza Dowlatshahi, Section Head, Wafer Fabrication – Canadian Photonics Fabrication Centre (CPFC), at the National Research Council of Canada. He explains that photons (basic units of light) used in fibre optics can transfer information at the speed of light—and the recent innovation in taking advantage of amplitude and modulation of light in addition to colour allows more information to go down the same fibre line. "This is now the basis of transport speeds around the world at 100G, 200G and 400G."
The CPFC fabricates optoelectronic chips used in these high‑capacity networks, and is the unique global supplier of several designs of fibre‑optic modules. These are critical to the supply chains of network systems companies such as Nokia, and telecommunications service providers such as Bell Canada and Rogers Communications. The Government of Canada, which provides essential services to Canadians, is also part of the supply line for data and communications. "Recognizing that the components we produce are vital to the country's ongoing operation, the CPFC has continued to supply these unique models throughout the pandemic," adds Dowlatshahi.
Beyond the speed of light
He explains that clients typically approach the CPFC with design ideas for new types of devices that have a significant impact on the market. "We then do fabrication process design and development to create those parts for our customers," he adds, pointing out that over the years many customers who had done R&D with them ask the CPFC to manufacture those parts as well.
An example is U.S.‑based NeoPhotonics, the primary supplier of key coherent components that keep the global communications infrastructure humming. According to company CEO Timothy S. Jenks, the world's top 10 communications equipment manufacturers depend on NeoPhotonics to supply essential optoelectronic products that transmit and receive the highest‑speed digital optical signals.
"As a vital part of the world supply chain for communication‑critical components, especially in this time of unprecedented dependence on communications, we have a special responsibility to continue operating at full capacity," he says. "To accomplish that, we rely on the CPFC as a critical supplier partner due to their unique processes for developing and manufacturing our critical wafer‑based devices."
The CPFC's team of more than 50 staff specialize in wafer fabrication for telecommunications, and work closely with customers' engineering teams to address issues efficiently and get to the required solutions.
According to Dowlatshahi, wafer fabrication requires a wide range of custom tools that do specific work and need maintenance by highly trained staff. For example, engineers set up new guidelines for processes and monitoring, while operations staff move components from one step to the next. "Depending on a device's complexity, manufacturing can take anywhere from 100 to 750 steps, with wafers passed back and forth between areas until they are completed," he says.
Telecommunications have never been more vital to the continuing operation of the world as people moved to remote work due to the pandemic. Early indications are that 30 to 40% of employees will continue to work from home even after the pandemicFootnote 2. At the same time, innovative tools demanding boundless bandwidth continue to be developed for them. However, these solutions and services must also be delivered cost‑effectively.
As a "new normal" emerges and dependence on telecommunications skyrockets, data and communications supply chains must continuously come up with fresh thinking and unique approaches. Coherent optical communications is the backbone of this hyperscale world.