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BT switches on quantum network link at Adastral Park

BT has opened its quantum network link between its Adastral Park research base and the UK Quantum Network node at the University of Cambridge

BT has opened a commercial-grade quantum network link between its Adastral Park research and development (R&D) centre near Ipswich and the Cambridge node of the UK Quantum Network (UKQN), heralding a milestone in the UK’s ability to test and develop quantum computing technologies.

The link, which was first announced in June 2018, runs more than 125km of standard BT optical fibre, with BT exchanges along the route acting as trusted nodes. It forms one part of the UKQN, which is the result of a collaboration between research and industry run by the Quantum Communications Hub.

“The BT Labs at Adastral Park have played a central role in the development of the fibre-optic networks that we now take for granted as the backbone of global communications,” said BT’s managing director of research, Tim Whitley.

“We’re proud to be at the forefront of the next generation of network design, helping the UK take the lead in the development of ultra-secure quantum networks, and keeping our customers’ data safe in years to come.”

Quantum networks are held to be essentially unhackable because they use single photons to transmit data encryption keys. This is called quantum key distribution, or QKD.

The laws of quantum mechanics hold that any attempt to read these photons will alter the encoding and introduce anomalies. This means it becomes possible to guarantee the secrecy and integrity of the key, meaning that even if communications data has been intercepted, the data stream will be completely unreadable to whoever hacked it.

QKD is therefore now coming to be considered a key tool for protecting critical data moving across communications networks.

Besides BT, the network, which was part-funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPRSC), was built in collaboration with Quantum Communications Hub partners, the Universities of Cambridge and York, alongside Swiss quantum encryption specialist ID Quantique and Adva, a supplier of optical networking technology.

It is designed to enable testing and demonstration of quantum computing technology, showing how it can secure critical data, and will hopefully act as a draw to generate wider interest and further innovation. Besides Adastral Park and the University of Cambridge, it also connects to the Innovation Martlesham cluster and the Cambridge Science Park.

Chris Skidmore, universities, science, research and innovation minister, hailed an “important step in protecting the UK from cyber threats”.

“The success of our modern Industrial Strategy depends on us maintaining the UK as a hotbed of innovation,” he said.

“We have identified AI and data as a grand challenge to ensure we build on our world-leading reputation in harnessing new technologies, which we will achieve in quantum technology through continued collaboration between industry, government and the National Quantum Technologies Programme.”

Read more about quantum computing

  • Machine learning is likely to be an early application of quantum computers, as researchers and developers look for the key to a more human-like artificial intelligence.
  • If IBM continues doubling the performance of its quantum computers, as recent benchmarks indicate, it could deliver the first commercial system in the next three to five years.
  • The predicted processing power of quantum computers is likely to make existing encryption algorithms obsolete. Quantum key distribution (QKD) is a possible solution – but is it really viable?

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