Commercial quantum networks inch closer to primetime


As commercial availability of quantum computers moves closer to reality, researchers and vendors are investing in efforts to create quantum-secured networks.

Quantum networks use entangled photons or other particles to ensure secure communications, but they are not, in and of themselves, used for general communication. Quantum networks are expensive and slow. And though nobody can listen in on the messages without breaking the entanglement of the photons, hackers can still try to attack the systems before the messages get into the quantum network, or after they leave it.

Instead, quantum networks today are largely used for quantum key distribution (QKD), which uses quantum mechanics to secure the transmission of symmetric encryption keys. According to a June report by quantum industry analyst firm IQT research, the worldwide market for quantum networks will near $1.5 billion in 2027 and grow to more than $8 billion by 2031, and QKD will be the main revenue driver, followed by a rise in networks that use emerging quantum repeaters to connect quantum computers together and quantum sensor networks.

“Quantum information being passed between network nodes is inherently secure because the data is contained in entangled photons, which is not breakable with known decryption methods,” says Brian Hopkins, vice president, emerging tech portfolio at Forrester.

The big selling point is to secure communications against malicious actors who might be eavesdropping on encrypted messages in order to decrypt them at some later point, when they have quantum computers capable of breaking today’s encryption. There are ongoing efforts to create new encryption algorithms that will be quantum-proof, but they keep getting broken.

So having a quantum-safe network in place would be an alternative for securing and future-proofing communications.

“The risks QKD addresses might seem a way off, but the possibility of harvesting attacks makes it important that organizations start planning now for the impact advancements in quantum technology will have,” says Piers Clinton-Tarestad, partner in technology risk at Ernst & Young (EY).

Some companies are already experimenting with using quantum networks for QKD with the goal of future-proofing communications, and EY is one of them. The professional services firm is using QKD to secure communications between two offices in London. EY is the first customer in a three-year trial of a quantum-secured metro network, launched last April by British Telecom and Toshiba, that connects multiple physical locations over standard fiber optic links using QKD.

The motivation for EY to install QKD was twofold, says Clinton-Tarestad. “First, the company wanted to test the viability of securing sensitive phone and video traffic such as that connected to its mergers and acquisitions business communications,” he says. “Second, with interest among financial sector companies in QKD security growing, EY decided it had to learn more about the technology in order to consider it as part of wider consultancy it offers in quantum technologies and business transformation.”

In fact, a number of financial services companies have already reached out to EY for advice, says Clinton-Tarestad.

The hardest part for companies is understanding the business value of QKD, he says. “This requires that organizations first identify the most sensitive data they might want to secure, a daunting undertaking if you’ve never done it before, but a fundamental part of many security approaches.”

Few organizations have done this, says Clinton-Tarestad. “You need to understand your data and its risk and lifetime. With that completed, it’s possible to work out where the business case makes sense.”

Europe is one of the global leaders when it comes to the deployment of quantum networks. The other is China, which set up the world’s largest quantum network in 2021. The network combines 700 optical fibers with two ground-to-satellite links and is able to achieve QKD over a distance of 4,600 kilometers, or about 2,860 miles.

But this year, two different companies are planning to deploy commercial quantum networks inside the United States.

Commercial quantum networks coming to U.S.

Though the United States does have quantum networking testbeds — a 124-mile network in Chicago being the longest — it’s been behind Europe and China.

The U.S. didn’t fund quantum heavily when Australia, the U.K. and China rapidly ramped up their funding a decade ago, says Aaron Miller, founder of Quantum Opus, a company that makes hardware used in quantum networks and other quantum applications.

“Our first customers were not in the U.S.,” Miller tells Network World. “For a few years, China was our largest single customer.”

But times have changed and U.S. investment in quantum technology is going up, says Miller.

“I’m excited to see things like the Department of Energy Centers of Excellence in Quantum that have started up, and now they’re funding upwards of half a billion dollars that will help education and researchers,” he says. “And it will help small companies that are growing to actually have a market for supplying infrastructure parts.”

This year, two companies are planning to deploy the first US-based commercial quantum networks: EPB Quantum Network in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and GothamQ in New York.

EPB Quantum Network is already functional and should be available to customers this summer.

The fiber optic cable that the entangled photos will travel through is provided by EPB, the electric power distribution and telecommunications company owned by the city of Chattanooga.

Qubitekk, a company specializing in hardware and software for quantum networks, is providing the quantum networking system, and Quantum Opus provides the superconducting nanowire single photon detectors which are an essential component of the quantum network.

Chattanooga isn’t known as a hotbed of cybersecurity activity, but it is close to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which has worked with EPB and Qubitekk since 2016 on using quantum technology to improve cybersecurity.

Quantum security/communications, quantum sensing, and quantum computing are the three types of customers the network is planning to serve, says Duncan Earl, president and CTO of Qubitekk.

But cybersecurity is the most pressing reason companies should care about quantum networks, and EPB Quantum Network can be used for quantum key distribution, Earl says.

After the keys are exchanged securely over the quantum network, the users send the actual encrypted messages over their traditional networks. The way it would work is that a bank, for example, would install a device in its corporate network. The device would then connect to EPB Quantum Network to provide an added layer of security for communications.

The networks can also be used by quantum technology companies, Earl says. “People developing quantum memories, quantum computers, quantum software or other quantum technology can build and validate their technologies’ performance in a real network environment without having to go to the expense and time to build their own network,” he says.

EPB Quantum Network will be available to anyone who has a legitimate use for it, says Jim Ingraham, vice president of strategic research at EPB.

“We have a venture capital community here in Chattanooga that has gotten very animated about what we’re doing here,” Ingraham says.

The other quantum network, GothamQ, is being deployed by quantum-secure networking technology company Qunnect, which is expanding an already existing quantum networking testbed in order to connect the Brooklyn Navy Yard to New York University in Manhattan.

The network should be finished sometime in 2023, and it’s planned to serve customers in the financial services, critical infrastructure, and telecom industries in the New York metropolitan area, according to the companies.

“We are connecting our testbed to New York University with the goal of showcasing protocols and technologies that will eventually be used by a wide cross-section of customers and partners within the Manhattan borough and across New York City,” said Mehdi Namazi, Qunnect’s CSO, in a statement.

Commercial quantum networks could face uphill battle

EPB and Qunnect might be taking a hard road in trying to find customers for their quantum networks.

In fact, the first U.S. company that tried to do this in 2018, Quantum Xchange, ended up shutting down their quantum network plans because of a lack of business interest.

Quantum Xchange had planned to run dark fiber across the eastern corridor, from Washington, D.C. up to NYC metro, and then on to Boston, but the plan had proved too early to market, says April Burghardt, head of marketing and communications at Quantum Xchange.

“There was just no buyer,” Burghardt says. “Plus, QKD is very expensive — both hardware and the fiber — and has other commercial limitations to be worked out.”

Now Quantum Xchange sells Phio TX, a software product that can work with either QKD or legacy encryption systems, explains Burghardt.

“Our strategy in 2023 is to make headway with the infrastructure buyer — those responsible for deploying SD-WAN and desktop VPN technologies,” says Burghardt.

The quantum ecosystem isn’t at a point where companies can usefully leverage quantum networking, says Gartner VP analyst Chirag Dekate.

“We are in the early stages of building the underlying infrastructures and validating foundational concepts,” Dekate says. “Going from where we are today to building large scale quantum networks will require us to solve several extremely complex problems — some known, most unknown.”

In other words, quantum networking for the most part is still a technology searching for business uses.

“The majority of quantum networking activities today are about research and development and not necessarily for production,” Dekate says.

However, the history of classical networking demonstrates that networking infrastructure catalyzes the birth and growth of new industries, he adds. “The groundwork and the infrastructure that the quantum network in Chattanooga enables is a key spark to attracting industries of the future to the region.”

Entanglement-based quantum networking can and will deliver differentiators on security — and can open the potential for new kinds of communication in the future, says Dekate.

“Looking back more than half a century ago, when rudimentary classical networks were first being invented, nobody could have predicted how the internet today has evolved,” he says. “Quantum networking is similar in the sense that we are in the early stages of building the underlying infrastructures and validating foundational concepts.”

Copyright © 2023 IDG Communications, Inc.

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