Australia's internet isn't exactly world-class, but it could one day lead the world in speed if it's the first to take advantage of a new discovery by some local scientists.
A team of researchers from three Melbourne universities have this week claimed the world's fastest internet speed using a single optical chip, which they said will facilitate faster networks with more capacity in the future.
The new record speed of 44.2tbps (terabits per second) shattered the previous record of 30.1tbps, and the chip used in the latest test is said to have used less than half the spectrum.
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That speed is roughly one million times the speed you'd currently get on the most popular NBN bundle.
The researchers from RMIT, Monash and Swinburne universities used something called a micro-comb to replace 80 separate lasers inside a fibre optic cable with one chip.
Traffic and congestion on the internet is usually explained with the analogy of traffic on roads and highways – the more "cars" (internet users) on the "road" (network), the slower the traffic gets.
The latest development is like taking a whole heap of those cars off the road and putting their occupants on a bus (albeit a hypothetical bus that always runs on time and moves faster than the cars around it).
Not only does the chip communicate huge amounts of data, it also uses less power and takes up less space than current methods due to its integrated nature.
The researchers focused on the integration because it offered the biggest return on investment.
"The optical source is central to every link, and as such, perhaps has the greatest need for integration.
"The ability to supply all wavelengths with a single, compact integrated chip, replacing many parallel lasers, will offer the greatest beneﬁts," their paper published in peer-reviewed journal Nature Communications reads.
The test was conducted using a dedicated fibre optic network used by research and education institutions, with the transmission being sent from the RMIT lab on Swanston St in Melbourne's CBD to Monash University's campus at Clayton through a 76.6 kilometre loop of fibre optic cables.
This reflects a shift in emphasis from long haul telecommunications networks covering thousands of kilometres to smaller metro-area and data centre networks described in the researchers' paper.
Demand on optical fibre networks, like parts of the national broadband network, are already growing at a rate of around 25 per cent a year, and co-lead author Dr Bill Corcoran, a lecturer in electrical and computer systems engineering at Monash University, said the current pandemic was providing a glimpse into the future, with millions suddenly jumping on the internet to work from home.
"We're currently getting a sneak-peek of how the infrastructure for the internet will hold up in two to three years' time, due to the unprecedented number of people using the internet for remote work, socialising and streaming," Dr Corcoran said.
"It's really showing us that we need to be able to scale the capacity of our internet connections," he added.
The integrated chip offers the chance to do that, and it's likely it could even be retrofitted onto the NBN to increase its capability.
The network is expected to "complete" its rollout by the end of next month, but work will continue on the network in the future, making upgrades to increase capacity and speeds.
"What our research demonstrates is the ability for fibres that we already have in the ground, thanks to the NBN project, to be the backbone of communications networks now and in the future. We've developed something that is scalable to meet future needs," Dr Corcoran said.
The discovery has few real-world applications in 2020, but in the future it could revolutionise what's possible with the internet, and could be the next example of Australia leading the world on internet innovation.
The wireless internet protocol Wi-Fi, that enabled things like public access to internet at airports and cafes as well as in the home was invented following discoveries by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).
The agency is so proud of its work on Wi-Fi that it's ranked as its top invention, ahead of things like plastic bank notes, the Hendra virus vaccine, and the Total Wellbeing Diet.