Quantum computing for telecommunications – hype or hope?

As networks move to the cloud and to the edge, become more automated, and expand to handle more traffic, the sheer amount of data needed to ensure all this runs smoothly is growing enormously. This is putting existing processing power and algorithms used by network operators under serious strain. Not only that, the security required to protect networks from a menacing array of threats becomes a tougher ask each quarter. Could quantum computing solve both these problems? And is it a realistic, medium-term solution, or a hype train that is too far up the track?

Quantum computing – information storage that can exist in multiple states simultaneously, which is not possible in ‘classical’ computing – has the potential to stratospherically increase computing speeds and power. Understanding among network scientists of how to apply quantum to telecoms are transforming at almost as quick a pace, and we are now at the stage where there are real possibilities for telcos to implement this technology to increase speeds and improve service.

Thus far, quantum communications have accounted for the bulk of research and development, but it’s quantum computing that could see a breakout in 2022. The potential processing power of quantum computing presents exciting opportunities in optimising telecoms infrastructure, operations planning and path calculations (1), and initial research into the area also highlights the potential of building a network of multiple quantum devices. So where can the gains be made?

Practical deployment

RAN

One particular area where quantum technology could make a practical difference is in the RAN. To ensure maximum proximity of computing power to towers and infrastructure, RAN programming and software is at present primarily run within the hardware. If this hardware can be upgraded to smaller and more powerful quantum chips, operators can get the benefits of locating chips within the radio network itself without sacrificing speed or processing power.

In a blog post in 2019, Ericsson identified several specific areas within the RAN where quantum algorithms and computing could make a material difference to operator efficiency. These included actual processing of the user data plane within the RAN, anomaly detection in network optimisation, and database search at the data management level. Another application with serious potential that Ericsson identified was offering user experience quality prediction for gaming and streaming by using a Quantum Support Vector Machine algorithm to assess device and network metrics.

Optimisation and automation

Effective automation of telecoms networks, both customer-facing and BSS/OSS, is vital if telcos are to remain competitive in the hyperscaler era – not just to offer solutions such as 5G, edge and cloud, but also to streamline internal process and keep costs under control. This is a further area where quantum computing can make a great contribution in telecoms. Currently, many optimisation and automation problems are being solved by telcos with sub-standard or underpowered algorithms (1) due to a lack of compute power. So the greatly increased processing power that quantum computing offers could allow telcos to take their optimisation, automation and intelligent network management to the next level, freeing up budget to pursue real revenue-generating opportunities.

Network security

Quantum computing is also making a splash in the area of network security. The ability of quantum processing to generate random numbers in a more reliable way than existing technologies offers great application potential for network security, for example. Additionally, the sheer power themselves of quantum computers – which could solve problems in a fraction of the time existing machines can – may be put to use to crack existing non-quantum security infrastructure, which is something the industry needs to take into account.

With this in mind, an EU-backed consortium of operators, enterprise and national research agencies has come together to address some of these areas. And in December 2021, the group – made up of Deutsche Telekom, Telefónica, Thales, Thales Alenia Space, and the Austrian Institute of Technology – announced that they had succeeded in developing a blueprint for quantum network architecture, which would be put to use to bolster European network security, ultimately helping the European Commission develop a continent-wide quantum communications infrastructure. The project, says the EC, will integrate new quantum-based systems into existing infrastructure – becoming ‘becoming one of the main pillars of the EU’s new Cybersecurity Strategy for the coming decades’.

Limitations

However, the same features that make quantum computing so attractive to telcos also present some difficulties. Although quantum signals themselves are inherently secure as they cannot be cloned, security at the interaction points with existing telco networks is a major concern at present . Additionally, the limited reach of quantum communications without losing message fidelity would require what are known as quantum repeaters, which are still in the research phase and not available on the market yet (1).

Case study: Telefonica’s MadQCI testbed

Which operators are making the moves in quantum? Telefónica has been dabbling in quantum trials since 2007 and since 2018 has been operating the MadQCI testbed with the aim of integrating quantum capability into the Spanish operator’s existing SDN/NFV infrastructure. Senior Technology Expert Diego Lopez is heavily involved in the project, and he recently gave a presentation to the Layer123 World Congress in November 2021 on the progress made so far and where he expects it to go in future.

With an aim of the project to boost Telefonica’s network security, initial work focused on quantum key distribution, and following prototype testing and compatibility demonstration with existing infrastructure around 2008-2009, a successful field trial took place over the Madrid network in 2018. The project also involves looking at potential applications for quantum to users, both within Telefonica and among end users. These include software network management, proof of transit and 5G and edge computing. Another application being looked at is e-health – with its obviously stringent security requirements healthcare is ripe for QKD involvement, so Telefonica has teamed up with a leading Spanish healthcare provider on the project to examine potential applications in transmission and storage of medical information, remote surgery, and collaborative generic research.

The full presentation is available below.

 

 

With such a high potential upside to quantum computing, other operators will be keeping a close eye on progress – both in the research lab and in the field.

This is just a brief introduction to the potential of quantum computing for the connectivity industry. For a deeper dive, why not joint Layer123 in London for the Quantum Computing Congress? We will bring together experts in the field to assess where quantum computing is now and where it can move forward – and at what stage operators need to get involved to enhance their offering. See the event website for more details.

1. Martin, V., Brito, J.P., Escribano, C. et al. Quantum technologies in the telecommunications industry. EPJ Quantum Technol. 8, 19 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1140/epjqt/s40507-021-00108-9