Market Insight

Quantum communication

February 22, 2017  | Subscribers Only

Przemek Bozek Przemek Bozek Associate Director – Research and Analysis, Service Provider Technology

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China has launched the first quantum satellite to test the quantum communication between space and Earth. The satellite weighing around 630kg will relay quantum transmission between stations on Earth and will operate in the sun-synchronous orbit and altitude of 500km.

The Quantum Experiments at Space Scale (QUESS) satellite will transmit the signal between two stations located 1200km from each other. This distance is significantly larger than the barrier of around 500km which was hard to achieve by fibre due to loss of photons in transmission. It is difficult to predict if the transmission is successful but there are plans to further beam photons across continents and from China to Europe. The tracking and acquisition process for such a long range have to be additionally developed and tested. If successful, the system aims to create a secure, quantum wide area network.

Quantum computing, although still in its initial stages, is not a myth anymore and the first commercial deployments should be available in the next 10-15 years. It is still a work in progress but several large corporations including NASA, Google, IBM and Microsoft have all publicly announced investments in quantum computing research. Additionally, Universities and research institutions are supporting their efforts. In the US, IARPA and USRA announced several grants for speeding up the process of building blocks for universal quantum computing and exploring its benefits.

The principles of quantum physics are used to perform data operations. But instead of traditional bits resulting in either 0 or 1, quantum bits (qubits) can take the superposition of 0 and 1, holding and processing a lot more information. Quantum computing is a holy grail for advanced AI (artificial intelligence) models that can simulate various human processes like learning, reasoning and understanding information, providing results from occurring situations and events so that they can apply all that knowledge obtained to identical incidents in the future.

The other main role of quantum computing is its security. Since photons can’t be separated or even duplicated, it is considered as potentially the most reliable and secure way of transmitting data. This allows the receiver and sender to become aware of whether the signal transmission has been viewed during transmission, in real-time. If there is no eavesdropping, then the signal is secure and a one-time key can be transmitted, essentially guaranteeing security to the rest of the message. So far, China is one of only a few nations that has publically announced its terrestrial and space-based quantum communication experiments. After the testing phase – and if effective – first the Chinese quantum communication network will be utilized by the government, the armed forces and some sensitive business institutions like banks. For industries such as defence, finance and retail, security of data transmission of their own operations has been crucial in maintaining growth and assurance.       

However, others are claiming that what China has so far achieved by sending photons down to earth is not enough to assure that the error rate is low enough and, consequently, allows for a safe transmission. It has been concluded that an error rate below 11% can be achieved via satellite and that it is enough to provide a photon transmission. However, QUESS is the first active satellite capable of producing as opposed to relaying coherent photons that can carry information, so all previous research conclusions may or not apply to it. QUESS will provide further valuation of these assumptions. In the meantime, ESA is testing similar solutions with its partners through the Artes programme. In the US, NASA, Boeing and Lockheed Martin are all involved, although their results are not yet announced to the public.

IHS Markit predicts that the data traffic will grow globally across all platforms at least 40 times between now and 2030. The single biggest driver is video traffic and a wide media segment. Media is estimated to encompass around 75% of all traffic in 2030, however, all other segments will grow considerably as well. Furthermore, in our annual survey across finance, retail, media and energy, security of transmission was positioned amongst the most important discriminators along the price that can influence the ratio of this growth. Redundancy, latency and reach were other influencers named as very important. It is no longer a surprise that a bank launches a satellite, Google supports Project Loon, Amazon tests drones for delivery, Facebook uses satellites to connect with unconnected spaces and CDNs are considering providing services via LEO satellites. More data has been generated by every application and there is a need for its processing, storage and duplication before further distribution. At the same time, hacking into data has been more dominant than ever before. All major technology and transportation companies have already launched solutions aimed to mitigate (or reducing the likelihood of) interceptions of signals.

The launch of QUESS is very important from the quantum computing, security and AI point of view, but it is also expected that the event will speed up similar projects across Europe and North America. It is important to stress that QUESS is not only a scientific satellite but its potential success will have a tremendous influence on data security across a majority of industries.     

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