This page belongs to: Action Plan for Critical Technologies

Advanced optical communications

Devices and systems that use light to transfer information over optical fibre or free space (i.e. air or the vacuum of space) and use laser technologies, adaptive optics and optical routing to transfer information faster, more reliably, more efficiently and/or using less energy. Applications for advanced optical communication include high-speed earth satellite communications, short-range visible light communications (i.e. ‘Li-Fi’), narrow-beam laser communications and multigigabit broadband and corporate networks.

Key sectors

Influences all sectors of the economy, including:

  • Agriculture
  • Banking & Finance
  • Communications
  • Defence & Defence Industry
  • Energy & Environment
  • Health
  • Transport & Logistics
  • Education & Research
  • Mining & Resources
  • Manufacturing
  • Space

Estimated impact on national interest

Economic Prosperity - High
National Security - High

Key Australian Government actions

Initiatives

  • Silicon Quantum Computing
  • SmartSat CRC
  • Telecommunications Security Review
  • National Earth Observations from Space Infrastructure Plan (NEOS-IP)
  • Advancing Space: Australian Civil Space Strategy 2019-2028
  • Digital Economy Strategy

Regulations

  • Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Regulations 2018
  • Telecommunications Act 1997
  • Defence and Strategic Goods List 2021

Example outcomes

  • A more innovative and agile Australia through innovation development and information sharing
  • Faster, more reliable and more equitable internet access
  • Expanded digital economy
  • Increased consumer benefits through improved connectivity
  • Increased productivity through IoT and connected systems
  • More resilient emergency management and enhanced rapid response capabilities
  • Improved access to health and medical interventions through enhanced telehealth capability, especially for remote and regional communities
  • Smart Cities and enhanced infrastructure and regional development through improved connectivity
  • Improved access to interactive media and services, especially for remote communities
  • Improved access experience for online education

Underpinning science

ANZ Standard Research Classification Category

  • Communications engineering
  • Atomic, molecular and optical physics
  • Classical physics
  • Electronics, sensors and digital hardware
  • Electrical engineering
  • Cloud computing

Example applications

Readiness Level – Now

  • High speed fixed internet connectivity via optical fibre
  • Fibre optic backbones for high speed mobile internet connectivity (4G/5G)
  • High-bandwidth data centre interconnects supporting cloud services

Readiness Level – 2–5 years

  • Very high bandwidth undersea telecommunication cables
  • High bandwidth space-to-earth communications

Readiness Level – Beyond 5 years

  • Space-to-earth communications for deep space exploration
  • Ultra-fast computing with on-chip optical interconnects
  • Secure communications for remote piloted and autonomous vehicle communications
  • Fibre optic backbones for high speed mobile internet connectivity (6G)
  • Low earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations that offer high‑bandwidth, low‑latency internet access

Australia's place in the world

Australia ranks 10th for research impact, led by the University of Technology Sydney, which is ranked 29th internationally. China has the highest research impact, with 7 of the top 10 international institutions. Australia is unranked for venture capital (VC) investment, with the bulk of the VC investment in this area in the United States and the United Kingdom. The number of patents is increasing by around 4% p.a., with China having the greatest number of patent families, more than double that of the United States.

Several Australian companies specialising in optical communications have been highlighted by the Australian Space Agency for potential opportunities to be a part of projects that can support NASA’s Moon to Mars program. These case studies highlight Australia’s capability and competitiveness as part of the international space initiatives.

Opportunities and risks

Compared to similarly advanced radiofrequency and copper-based technologies, optical communications technologies provide much higher bandwidth, reduced congestion and consume less power. The opportunity from advanced optical communications is enabling more people to each use more bandwidth, at the same time. Advanced optical communications may also support other technologies, such as photonic computing and optically based target and tracking systems, and laser development.

Advanced optical communications will power high-bandwidth, low-latency earth-space and space-space communications. Advanced optical communications technologies like Li-Fi could offer enhanced security while addressing the spectrum congestion issues faced by Wi-Fi. Advanced optical communications will continue to provide the backbone for Australia’s telecommunications networks, including international telecommunications, communications between Australia’s geographically dispersed population centres, and within the non-radio parts of 5G and 6G networks. Advances in optical communications can enhance the efficiency and lifespan of the submarine cables that carry the vast majority of Australia’s international telecommunications traffic.

Developing greater expertise in optical communications opens the door to Australia designing or even manufacturing advanced optical communications devices. The greatest risk is that Australia will be almost entirely dependent on imported devices and expertise, which would leave Australia vulnerable to supply disruptions and potentially difficult security decisions.

Insufficient innovation may slow the growth of Australia’s digital economy and limit the effectiveness of other critical technologies, such as advanced radiofrequency communications.

Research impact (RI)

Australia ranks 10th worldwide for research impact in a field led by China and the United States. The total volume of research publications has increased at around 1% p.a. over the 5 year period 2016–2020, with 22% of research involving international collaboration.

  1. China - 19575
  2. USA - 14517
  3. UK - 7558
  4. Germany - 5489
  5. Japan - 4285
  1. Australia - 2058

The research impact provides an indication of the productivity of a country or institution. Here, productivity was assumed to be represented by the volume of publications (i.e. scholarly output) as an indicator of the resources & facilities, and the level of interest in the publications as an indicator of quality.

VC investment

The United States has the highest amount of venture capital (VC) investment ahead of the United Kingdom (second highest). The Republic of Korea (3rd) and China (4th), have comparable amounts of relative venture capital (VC). Australia is unranked. Globally, VC investment in this area has been increasing at around 42 % p.a. since 2016.

  1. USA
  2. UK
  3. R. of Korea
  4. China
  5. Canada
  • (Unranked) Australia

Data from Crunchbase. The Crunchbase database provides a partial view of the global VC landscape. However the quantity, quality and richness of the data are considered to be statistically significant, and indicative of global trends.

Patents - international

Most patents for this technology were filed by Chinese applicants or inventors, more than twice the number of the United States. Australia is ranked 28th. Overall patent applications have been increasing at 4% p.a. since 2015.

  1. China - 4333
  2. USA - 1884
  3. Japan - 1166
  4. Taiwan - 344
  5. R. of Korea - 285
  1. Australia - 10

Research institutions - international

China has 7 institutes in the top 10 international institutions, with the Chinese Academy of Sciences having the highest research impact. The other three institutes in the top 10 are from the United States, Saudi Arabia and France.

Rank Top International Institution Research Impact
1 Chinese Academy of Sciences | China 3050
2 Lucent | United States 1899
3 Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications | China 1581
4 Huazhong University of Science and Technology | China 1578
5 Tsinghua University | China 1317
6 King Abdullah University of Science and Technology | Saudi Arabia 1274
7 Shenzhen University | China 1270
8 Shanghai Jiao Tong University | China 1210
9 French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) | France 1198
10 Peking University | China 1193

Research institutions - Australia

Within Australia, the University of Technology Sydney has the highest research impact nationally, and is ranked 28th internationally. The University of Sydney ranks 47th internationally.

Rank Top Australian Institution Research Impact
1 University of Technology Sydney 713
2 University of Sydney 556
3 University of Melbourne 538
4 Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University 424
5 Monash University 265
6 Swinburne University of Technology 258
7 University of New South Wales 255
8 Australian National University 241
9 Edith Cowan University 107
10 Macquarie University 55

Patents - Australia

Top 4 Australian Patent Applicants Patent Families
BAE Systems Australia 2
Biarri Networks 2
Baraja 1
University of Sydney 1

Patents filed by Australian businesses, 2015–2019.