Dealing with network bottlenecks would be a huge accomplishment, said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at Enderle Group.
"Right now, the network is the bottleneck for hosted computing. This change could transform the industry as we know it," said Enderle. "We are going to need a faster Internet. We need it now. Currently, we only have about 20 percent [of available bandwidth] in many places."
Olds noted that there's no way to get around the fact that a faster Internet infrastructure will be needed to continue to push forward with better devices and applications.
"The Internet is going to have to become faster," he said. "We still have millions and millions of people added every year. But, just as importantly, consider the millions and millions of devices that are now vying for Net access -- all of the smartphones, sensors and other devices that need connectivity. All of these new users are generating new Web traffic and content at a furious pace, and the Internet needs to get faster to keep up."
Chan was quick to note that switching to optical fibers won't just mean better performance. It also will mean cheaper high-speed access.
"With bigger applications and more bottlenecks, you could buy extra bandwidth if you pay through the nose, but that's not something every user could do," Chan said. "Sure, you can increase the data rate, but it's expensive. With this new architecture, we can speed up the Internet but make high-speed access cheaper."
The MIT research team is testing the transport part of its architecture at Bell Labs in New Jersey, Chan said, and they're making sure the switch to all optical fibers won't cause any long-term effects on the Internet.
Chan, who is planning to start a company that will deploy and sell the technology, added that the next step will be to piggyback the new system onto some traditional networks in the U.S. in a limited trial.
"I think we have enough tests to know that the transport is ready and the architecture would work," he added.
Chan said he's been in talks with router companies about the new architecture. The router companies, along with major Internet service providers, would have to buy into his plan.
"Assuming the technology works as advertised, the main drawback will be the cost of rolling out the new gear and optimizing the Net so that it takes best advantage of the new stuff," Olds said. "New cutting-edge technology isn't cheap, and while prices will drop over time, they will only fall if the volume for the equipment is there."
Olds also noted that it might take a little doing for major ISPs and user organizations to swallow that expense.
"There will be considerable expense in adopting this new technology, not just in the new hardware, but in testing and optimizing the Internet so it can take advantage of the higher speeds," he added. "Given that the new equipment will be more expensive, it isn't going to be easy to convince the providers to adopt it right away. Just because the speed of light is the fastest thing we know, it doesn't mean they'll pay big bucks harnessing it so I can get my e-mail faster. They're going to need to be convinced that the higher transmission speeds and lower power requirements will help their bottom line."
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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