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The world’s first commercial quantum network is being built in London

WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF

Hackers want to steal data and eavesdrop on communications, quantum networks make that almost impossible.

 

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Quantum networks, which are allegedly unhackable – until they’re not – because of the way they work, have been in development for years as governments and multi-nationals everywhere try to find new ways to communicate securely without the risk of their networks being hacked or listened into. And now we’re starting to see some of that hard work bear fruit as more quantum networks get deployed into the wild.

 

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Hot on the heels of teams in Canada and Austria who a while ago rolled out prototype quantum networks, BT and Toshiba are set to launch the world’s first commercial trial of a quantum network infrastructure in the UK. The landmark network will securely connect sites in London’s Docklands, the City and the M4 Corridor.

The network will support Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) — a technology the two have been collaborating on that relies on encoding each bit of a cryptographic key on a single photon – a particle of light.

Attempts to read the photons alter their encoding, allowing key secrecy to be tested and guaranteed. This makes QKD-based key-exchange secure against any computational or mathematical advance.

 

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BT will provide dedicated high bandwidth for the trial on Openreach’s Optical Spectrum Access Filter Connect, which gives direct access to the optical path on a dedicated optical fibre link, while letting users connect equipment to filter ports. BT looks after the fibre and manages the wavelengths and customers can develop services over spare channels. Toshiba meanwhile will provide QKD hardware and key management software.

The commercial QKD network will go live in early this year. It does not require specialist “dark fibre” and will use kit from Toshiba that establishes a quantum channel with wavelength in the telecom O-Band, leaving the C-band free for customer traffic. A Toshiba product page says it can “operate in the conventional mode with a fiber pair carrying uni-direction traffic, or with a single fiber carrying bi-direction quantum and classical signals.”

 

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The launch comes a year after Toshiba launched a commercial QKD platform offering — a move that Taro Shimada, Chief Digital Officer of Toshiba Corporation, heralded as set to “ultimately enable the birth of a quantum internet.” Adoption has thus far been limited to trials over private networks.

The network aims to help early adopters get ahead of the looming threat to traditional network security from quantum computing. As the two noted, securing encrypted traffic is already a concern today “because data which requires long term security could be at risk of ‘store today, crack later’ attacks, in which the key exchange and encrypted traffic are stored now and broken when a sufficiently powerful quantum computer is available.”

 

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Howard Watson, BT’s CTO, said in an October 5 statement: “BT and Toshiba have established a global lead in the development of quantum-secure networks… Secure, robust and trusted data transfer is increasingly crucial to our customers across the globe, so we’re proud of the role our Quantum R&D programme is playing in making the world’s networks safer as we enter the dawn of a new age of quantum computing.”

While BT and Toshiba have previously installed a point-to-point quantum-secure link between two commercial sites, deploying a full quantum-secured metro network environment with multiple endpoints requires new approaches to integration and management, the two noted in a release on October 5.

 

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“London is an ideal environment to deploy and trial this technology thanks to the density of customers whose data is extremely sensitive and requires utmost security, such as financial and legal institutions” the two said. The initial focus will be “trials for enterprise customers who are carrying sensitive traffic (such as database backups) between sites, and to explore potential future offerings such as encrypted links and ‘quantum keys-as-a-service.’”

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