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UK’s first ultra-secure quantum network link between research and industry launched

Posted on 26 March 2019

Researchers at the University of York have teamed up with colleagues at the University of Cambridge and BT to build a new high-speed link which will enable the development and testing of new quantum technologies.

The new network link will be used to trial how these technologies can be used to provide “unhackable” communications for critical and sensitive data.

The new network link will be used to trial how these technologies can be used to provide “unhackable” communications for critical and sensitive data across sectors including healthcare, banking, logistics and defence.

Quantum links are secure because they rely on particles of light, or photons, to transmit encryption keys through the optical fibre. If a hacker were to attempt to intercept the communication, the key itself changes through the laws of quantum mechanics, alerting the communicating parties to the presence of an eavesdropper.

Major step forward

The quantum-secured link is between the BT Labs in Suffolk and the Cambridge node of the UK Quantum network, which was launched in 2018.

The link has been built by the Quantum Communications Hub, a collaboration between research and industry directed by Professor Tim Spiller at the University of York and supported by the UK’s National Quantum Technologies Programme.

The link directly connects not only the research facilities of the BT Labs and the University of Cambridge, but also the high-tech industry clusters at each end: the Cambridge Science Park and Innovation Martlesham near Ipswich. This opens the door to a huge range of trial projects focused on quantum secure network technologies and services with potential for exploitation by industry.

Professor Tim Spiller, from the Department of Physics at the University of York, said: "This new network represents a major step forward for the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme, providing a direct link between research and industry, and an opportunity to develop new applications and services."

Cyber threats

The link uses over 125km of standard BT optical fibre between Cambridge and Adastral Park, with BT Exchanges acting as ‘trusted nodes’ along the route.  The link will carry both quantum and non-quantum traffic; the QKD technique shares data encryption keys via an ultra-secure quantum channel over the same fibre that carries the encrypted data itself. 

Chris Skidmore, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, said: “The first ever commercial grade, quantum network link between Suffolk and Cambridge is 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. 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.”

Support for the development was provided by ID Quantique and ADVA, who supplied the QKD systems and optical transmission equipment, and the system-specific expertise required to integrate it.   The link is co-funded through the Quantum Communications Hub by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and BT.

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