Tech firms are betting that optical networks will fuel the AI, 6G transition.

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The rapid adoption of e-commerce, online streaming media, and productivity tools in the workplace – especially during the Covid pandemic – is putting a lot of pressure on today's telecom networks.

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Some of the world's biggest tech firms are backing a new type of telecom network that they say will reduce the overall power consumption of data-hungry artificial intelligence applications and support next-generation 6G. It will help accelerate the transition to mobile internet.

Choice Microsoft, Google, IntelAnd Sony is supporting a little-known initiative called the IOWN Global Forum, a global gathering of cloud hyperscalers, telecom groups, and chipmakers.

These companies aim to fully deploy an “all-photonic” network, or APN, by 2030.

What are photonic networks?

The IOWN Global Forum is a global group that aims to develop technical standards for all photonics networks.

Dozens of major tech firms have signed up as backers. These include the likes of Microsoft and Google, which are behind two major public cloud platforms.

Telco firms like NTT, Erickson And Nokia There are also core members of the group. Chipmakers also play a key role, with Intel and SK Hynix as members.

Photonic networks, in short, are networks that use light instead of electrical impulses to deliver data. This approach is expected to result in much lower energy consumption for worldwide data transmission.

Currently, power consumption is a major problem in the technology industry. The rapid adoption of e-commerce, online streaming media, and productivity tools in the workplace — especially during the COVID-19 pandemic — has forced companies to reevaluate their network infrastructure and data. Find new ways to deliver.

What is the purpose?

It aims to reduce the strain on existing telecom networks, which is expected to worsen in the coming years amid digital adoption and continued growth in demand for AI – particularly generative AI.

“Mobile traffic is growing more and more every day,” Katsuhiko Kawazoe, chair of the IOWN Global Forum, told CNBC via email. “There is a need to make efficient use of radio spectrum and power.”

IOWN technology allows operators to optimize spectrum and power usage in mobile networks in real-time, Kawazu added.

For example, a large city may need more radio units during office hours than at night. However, residential areas will need more units to serve workers in the evening, when they return home.

IOWN technologies “will allow us to eliminate power for certain situations in the network,” explained Gonzalo Camarillo, head of implementation components at Ericsson and head of the marketing steering committee at the IOWN Global Forum.

Reducing the climate impacts of AI

Large language models, like the one behind OpenAI's ChatGPT, require a lot of training data and powerful graphics chips called GPUs. But this comes at a huge climate cost.

Photonic networks can make small data centers much more powerful, said Masahisa Kawashima, IOWN technology director at NTT Corporation and head of the technology working group at the IOWN Global Forum.

“Data centers are getting bigger and bigger, and hyperscale data centers are struggling to reduce the carbon footprint of societies,” Kawashima said.

“A lot of data centers are very concentrated in a small area, and that's causing a lot of energy demand for that area. But if we use IOWN APNs, we can provide customers with data in a wide area. Centers can deploy.”

Each of the data centers on this network resembles a “hyperscale” data center, Kawashima said, even if it's a medium-sized one. Developers of AI models can use shared GPU infrastructure in small areas to develop their AI models.

“AI has become the focus of competition for many industries, including automotive and pharmaceuticals. Many enterprises are interested in running their own GPU infrastructure,” Kawashima said.

What will IOWN's technology be used for?

The IOWN Global Forum is exploring several use cases for photonic networks with its partners. One is for banks to use IOWN tech in their back-end infrastructure.

Banks can operate two separate data centers located in different sites and then replicate their data across both sites, Kawashima said. This will help them “gain flexibility” in their infrastructure, he added.

Banks and other financial services firms need to quickly send data back and forth to ensure the consistency of their services and ensure that transactions are processed smoothly – whether deposits or deposits. Be it withdrawal or wire transfer.

Mitsubishi UFJA Japanese bank is one of the major institutions using IOWN technologies for financial infrastructure.

Another use case is broadcast and media streaming. Today's advanced streaming platforms, such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, use a lot of data to facilitate cloud-enabled delivery of movies and TV shows.

With IOWN, the goal is to make this a low-power process, while increasing the capacity of data that can be sent across networks and reducing latency.

Sony is working with NTT to develop a wide-area remote production platform for broadcast stations, newsrooms, and event halls.

“Distributed computing is really possible, and soon it will be greener and more energy efficient,” Katsutoshi Itoh, head of connectivity technologies at Sony's research and development center, told CNBC.

It can also help with the transition to 6G.

IOWN technologies are expected to drive the transition to 6G, the next generation of mobile networks beyond 5G.

NTT's Kawashima said optical network technology could make it less expensive for telecom carriers to install 6G antennas. It can also enable them to share their radio towers for more efficient network optimization.

“To install the antenna, we need an optical fiber to connect the antenna to the radio data centers,” explained Kawashima. “So, if we use an IOWN APN to connect the antenna to the base stations, So maybe we can reduce the cost of antenna deployment.”

Kawashima added, “APNs will allow mobile network operators to share radio towers. This is because, with 5G and 6G, “many carriers are concerned about heavy investments in antenna deployments. are happy.”

IOWN Tech is still in the early stages of development. It will take a few years for photonic networks to really make an impact on industries.

For now, the IOWN Global Forum is working to achieve its key goals by 2030. The forum is targeting real-world commercial applications of the technology this year.

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