Seeding innovation in commercial quantum networks

Next generation quantum key distribution is set to offer easier deployment on existing real-world infrastructure. The importance of partnering to offer end-to-end business services to early adopters is growing. The recent extension of the UK Quantum Network to the BT led tech cluster at Adastral Park is a powerful statement. Amid growing global competition, the UK is getting ready to set out its stall for the second phase of its national quantum technology programme.

The world is waking up to the threat future quantum computers already pose to sensitive data used today.  In the search for new quantum safe cryptography solutions, QKD promises to be a powerful tool to complement the conventional maths-based cryptography of PQC.

Next generation QKD

First generation commercial QKD solutions have been with us for some time. In the west, IDQ have offered quantum safe crypto solutions since 2010. More recently QuantumCTek has helped build the world’s largest quantum network in China [38]. If you want a secure connection between a Wall Street trading floor and your New Jersey back offer, then Quantum Xchange would be happy to talk to you today.

Early implementations of this technology have not been without challenge. Dedicated optical fibre infrastructure is typically required. Range is limited between ‘trusted’ repeater nodes. The need to use weak pulses as approximate single photon states introduces potential security vulnerabilities, further complicating the engineering of practical devices. Costs can be eye wateringly expensive [29].

A new generation of QKD technologies are seeking to mitigate these barriers and so make a quantum safe service delivered to end customers easier to realise. CV QKD promises enhanced compatibility with existing telecoms switching infrastructure (though over more limited ranges), Toshiba’s TF QKD promises to combine increased range with the security advantages of entanglement-based MDI QKD [44]. Chip scale packages are reducing costs. Satellite nodes promise to bridge terrestrial networks [36].

The immediate significance of the recently launched 120km quantum link from Cambridge to Adastral Park [45] is that it is being delivered over BT’s existing commercial-grade fibre. More than that, quantum keys and high speed data encrypted with those keys travel down the same fibre. IDQ and Adva commercial equipment is used across three intermediate trusted nodes in BT exchanges.  Tim Spiller, Director of the UK Quantum Comms Hub is clear “We aim to build market pull for QKD by demonstrating that we are delivering it as a service in a real world environment”.

The link joins the Adastral Park tech cluster to the growing UK Quantum Network.  Further extensions of the network are due to follow, including the launch of a metropolitan network in Bristol (itself a world class quantum photonics cluster) and a long distance Cambridge-London-Bristol link. There is also future potential for a connection to the NPL (a world class quantum metrology hub).

Though still expected this year, the reason for the delay in commissioning the long distance section of the UK Quantum Network is itself informative: the relevant Toshiba equipment for installation in the trusted repeater nodes did not initially have the CE mark required to allow installation outside of the lab in conventional commercial exchange locations (this has now been rectified). This is illustrative of the many practical details that need to be addressed in bringing academic breakthroughs out of the lab into commercial deployment.

Overall, the first phase of the UKNQTP (2014-19) is now close to completion. Initial government funding for the second phase (2019-24) has been approved and detailed proposals are currently under review.  The informal aim is that across the 10 years of this programme, and including both public and private contributions, total funding will have been over £1b.

Building an ecosystem

A very striking feature of the quantum link launch event at Adastral Park was not the presence of QKD technology specialists per se, but rather the engagement of the allied hardware and service value chain.

Adva, the optical networking leader, highlighting the compatibility of its data centre interconnect products

Senetas showing its crypto-agile hardware encryptors, ready to accept classical or quantum keys

QuintessenceLabs demonstrating their flexible key management and QRNG hardware

Tech Mahindra demonstrating their ability to deliver business applications such as video conferencing over quantum safe links

IDQ the quantum safe security specialists exhibiting its QRNG and QKD solutions

KETS demonstrating how its chip-based solutions are promising to revolutionise not just the portability but also the cost of QKD and QRNG systems

Teledyne e2v highlighting its plans for a new generation of quantum clocks for ultra-precise 5G network synchronisation

Craft Prospect the cubesat engineering specialist

Fraunhofer, the major RTO

Cognizant, the IT and professional services giant, identifying quantum technologies as one of the focusses of its Global Technology Office

A headline feature of UKNQTP phase 2 is set to be a series of Innovation Centres designed to accelerate the take-up of quantum technology by industry. In the government’s vision, such centres ideally grow out of an existing industry presence and demand for participation. Adastral Park already hosts a cluster of 124 high tech companies. Few will be surprised if BT leads a winning consortium to secure its formal status as a quantum comms Innovation Centre.

Pitching the advantages of the UK Quantum Network as a test bed for providers and potential end-users, Andrew Lord of BT emphasises the rapidly moving nature of the field “Companies don’t want to be locked in to just one version of this technology, they want to be part of an ecosystem that is continuously developing”.

Others will offer their own ways to answer this challenge.

The OpenQKD consortium, expected to spearhead the EU’s QKD test bed, is also likely to emphasise the involvement of a wide range of leading QKD vendors and the demonstration of first and second generation protocols. With a vision to build test links from Spain to Switzerland and through to Poland, OpenQKD will be well placed to align with regulatory and certification processes across the EU’s large internal market. It will also likely surface some of the political sensitives inherent in running trusted node based networks across national boundaries. However, the successful mobilisation of the EU’s Flagship programme notwithstanding, this initiative is still at a significantly earlier stage of maturity than that in the UK. Both still lag what has been achieved in China.

QuintessenceLabs have previous experience with QKD supported by the Australian government, and their work on a next generation CV QKD product continues including both fibre and free space implementations. More broadly they emphasise the important role QRNG and key management hardware can offer both in protecting current crypto environments and in building quantum resilience.

Trusted node technology itself is set to become an increasingly prominent part of the commercial package. Quantum Xchange has based its pilot New York service on a 3-year exclusive US distribution agreement with IDQ and the Zayo dark fibre network. However its own core intellectual property is in key management and trusted node distance enhancing technology.

Quantum Xchange’s IP originally descends from Battelle and its work during the early development of QKD in the US. This should remind us of the emerging role patent rights are likely to play in the commercial development of the quantum sector.  This is an area of strength for the US and China (with an honourable mention for Japan). Europe, including the UK, lags significantly behind the patent activity of these leaders.

Purveyors of Trust

A welcome aspect of the increasing maturity of the UK programme is its relatively balanced treatment of QKD within the wider quantum safe crypto landscape. The launch of the Adastral Park quantum link was naturally a QKD focussed event.  However, both the comments of keynote speakers and the strategies on display by the exhibitors displayed a more nuanced understanding of the likely respective roles of PQC, QKD and QRNG as appropriate to different use cases and time horizons. This is a really welcome change for anyone who has attended more ‘tribal’ sessions with a pure maths-led or physics-led flavour.

This perspective hasn’t happened overnight. The UK quantum comms programme has benefitted from having strong sceptical voices able to articulate the strengths and possibilities of PQC. Many would feel that the NCSC was probably correct to caution potential users, in previous years, against a premature adoption of QKD. More recently the publication of the UK Government’s Blackett Review [1] on quantum technology represented a key moment and agreement about the way forward: the UK Quantum Comms Hub has now delivered an ideal test bed for a pilot trial of QKD using realistic data in a realistic environment. Fact Based Insight believes that active and public involvement of the NCSC in supporting such a trial would greatly advance business understanding and trust across this developing sector.

Norbert Lütkenhaus of Canada’s IQC emphasises the need for businesses to take independent advice before proceeding too far with any vendors committed to one particular approach. evolutionQ is a notable example of a company that has combined leading expertise from across crypto traditions.

UK Quantum Revolution

The Adastral Park quantum link launch event carefully pulled all the levers of building national industrial momentum.

Adastral Park delegates entered past a statue of Tommy Flowers, the telecoms pioneer and inventor of Colossus, the world’s first programmable electronic computer, famous for its role in supporting the code breaking work of Alan Turing at Bletchley Park during World War II.

A keynote address by Nick Chism (Director General, Enterprise at BEIS) demonstrated the senior level of support and engagement with the programme.

The involvement from BT’s Tim Whitley and Cambridge University’s Richard Penty illustrate that we have reached an engineering rather than science focussed stage of development.

Figures such as Roger McKinlay (ISCF Challenge Director, Quantum Technologies) are part of the strengthening of industrial and commercial experience at the top of the programme.

Sir Peter Knight, a founding father of the UK quantum programme, closed the session with a striking observation – viewed as an industry in its own right, photonics already contributes more to UK GDP than pharmaceuticals (a sector where the UK likes to see itself as strong).  Photonics is not just a key enabling technology for quantum cryptography, but also much more widely for quantum technology.

It’s easy to see the vision this paints for the UK programme. Some would argue that photonics is to the Second Quantum Revolution what electronics was to the Digital Revolution.  Real disruption happens when we suddenly realise there is a new way of looking at the future.

Actions for Business

Businesses looking to offer quantum safe communications hardware or services:

  • Which of my current products and services will be affected by the need to move to quantum safe alternatives? What new opportunities are emerging?
  • Are my customers already demanding quantum safe alternatives? How quickly will this demand grow?
  • Do I have the right internal staff skills and external partners to seize these opportunities and respond to new competitive threats?
  • In what regions and geographic centres should I build my own quantum related activities? What are the pros and cons of each choice?

Businesses with sensitive data or assets they need to protect:

  • The board should review the security threat to the business posed by future quantum computers.
  • Where sensitive data or assets exist, the necessary time horizons for preventative action should be understood.
  • Beware of external or internal biases in looking at only part of the tential problem and range of solutions.
  • Deciding to work with the right partners and suppliers will often be more important than immediate selection of a particular quantum safe solution.
David Shaw

About the Author

David Shaw has worked extensively in consulting, market analysis & advisory businesses across a wide range of sectors including Technology, Healthcare, Energy and Financial Services. He has held a number of senior executive roles in public and private companies. David studied Physics at Balliol College, Oxford and has a PhD in Particle Physics from UCL. He is a member of the Institute of Physics. Follow David on Twitter and LinkedIn