Work Group 1
Digital Infrastructure

Early 2020, with the onset of COVID-19, digital infrastructure became an even more essential part of our personal and professional lives, acting as a 'lifeblood' the likes of which we have never seen before. Digital infrastructure had turned altogether into an essential marketplace for food and goods, the facilitator of our children's education, the enabler of teleworking, the storehouse of our culture, the warrant of some of our civil rights, and the intercessor to our friends and family. Overall, the COVID-19 crisis triggered an intense wave of digital transformation, which is expected to last and expand further over the next decade.

Photonics technologies contribute to a secure transmission of data.

Light is the indispensable fuel for this infrastructure: along with the supporting photonics technologies, it will boost the return to growth and steer further development if adapted to the new expectations of the next decade beyond 2020.

The sudden awareness of the criticalness of the digital infrastructure modified the hierarchy of user expectations from the infrastructure. Growing concerns on security, reliability and power consumption have complemented the need for more bandwidth. Photonic technologies show advantages to meet all these expectations and the strong increase in demands for new fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) connectivity after the start of the health crisis, well above demands for new wireless connectivity, could be the first evidence of that.


We will soon enter a new era in which trillions of connected objects will require smart connectivity: always available, intrinsically secure, and flexibly scaling as the pre-requisite for zero-downtime in a terabit economy. Soon autonomous vehicles, robots and drones will generate Zettabytes of digital information. Artificial intelligence and machine learning will free us from routine tasks and boost human creativity as well as product innovation. The digitisation of industrial production and working environments is expected to support momentum for creating a million new jobs in Europe.

All FTTH data, wireless data, industry data will have to be carried across a new fibre-based programmable network infrastructure, largely photonic too, acting as the 'central nervous' system that the digital society, industry and economy will heavily rely upon. Delivering the required performance, resilience and security levels there too, while satisfying cost, energy efficiency and technology constraints, presents a formidable research challenge for the next decade.

The challenge is even greater when acknowledging the information and the communication infrastructures will cease co-existing side-by-side, and, pervasively merge into a single infrastructure, delivering more and richer services autonomously with minimal human intervention. This new infrastructure will interact with the physical world via a myriad of sensors and actuators, many of which are yet to be developed or invented (connected "things", for example, robots, cars, connected objects, interfaces with users), many of which will rely on photonics.

Large data-centres (central cloud) will be used to perform complex decisions, but are remote and therefore not compliant with the growing need for time-sensitive services, for example, robot control in digitised factory floors. Distributed, smaller datacentres (edge clouds and cloudlets), interconnected by photonic technologies, will provide ultrafast responsivity for time-sensitive applications by pushing intelligence as well as computer and storage capabilities to the network edge. Overall, exchanges between machines (primarily inter-process communication between computers and servers) will be the dominant source of traffic across the whole infrastructure, a paradigm shift from today where inter-server traffic is mostly kept within the perimeter of data centres.

This transformation is expected to completely change the ICT landscape and reshuffle the distributions of players in the IT and communications ecosystem. A plethora of opportunities for established market players and new entrants will be opened, propelling the creation of as yet unimagined services and applications where photonics is a likely enabler.

Photonics technologies are an indispensable pillar of this new secure and resilient ICT infrastructure. Meeting the demanding capacity, energy efficiency and latency targets of the terabit economy and society is only possible if photonics technologies are more widely deployed in all areas of communications. For example:

  • 5G and beyond networks are heavily reliant on the availability of optical backhaul and core networks
  • Ultra-broadband residential and enterprise access is not possible without deep fibre solutions
  • Optical wireless emerges as a complementary solution in areas where no fibre is available.
  • Data centre interconnects cannot cope with the bandwidth surge without photonics
  • Critical and private infrastructures demand optical networks for security and simplicity


Further information

The detailed Photonics21 Work Group Digital Infrastructure photonics research and innovation priorities are outlined in the Photonics Strategic Research and Innovation Agenda.

The Work Group Digital Infrastructure further has a dedicated section in the Photonics21 member area.