Working in tandem with services group EY, Toshiba and BT will trial their quantum-secured network to connect two sites in London, one at London Bridge and another at Canary Wharf

Today, BT has announced that it is furthering its partnership with Toshiba, launching the first commercial trail of a network using quantum security in the form of quantum key distribution (QKD).

The test, which is being carried out over BT’s (Openreach’s) fibre network, will be performed by professional services group EY, with Toshiba providing the QKD equipment and key management software. The test will see EY use the network to communicate between two of its sites in London, one at London Bridge and the other at Canary Wharf.

Quantum computing, in its current state, is still very much in its infancy, with very few practical applications recorded outside the laboratory. Nonetheless, experts predict that when the technology does come of age it will be capable of processing data at a rate millions of times faster than traditional supercomputers. 

The emergence of these quantum computers potentially represents a major problem for data security. 

Currently, data encryption typically relies on scrambling the data into an unreadable format, with the information translated back to its original form when it reaches its final destination. This is done via a secret encryption key – typically numerous algorithms – that both the sender and recipient have access to. Quantum computers, with their vastly improved number crunching capabilities, will be able to derive these keys during the signal’s transmission, thereby gaining access to sensitive data. 

According to BT, quantum computer-enabled cyber-attacks could be possible by 2025 and will be likely within the following decade. In fact, a major fear is that cybercriminals are already stealing and storing encrypted data on a massive scale, with the intention of decrypting it later once quantum computing technology becomes suitably mature.

However, just a quantum technology will represent a new threat for network security, it could also present a new solution. 

QKD technology will allow parties sending a receiving data to share a random secret key using photonics, with security properties based on the laws of quantum mechanics. This includes the fact that observation of a quantum system changes the system itself; in other words, if a third party attempts to observe the data during transit, the security system will be alerted, abording the transfer and warning both the sender and receiver. 

“Quantum technology creates new and significant opportunities for business, but presents potential risks. Quantum secure data transmission represents the next major leap forward in protecting data, an essential component of doing business in a digital economy. Our work with two of the world’s leading technology innovators will allow us to demonstrate the power of quantum to both EY and our clients,” said Praveen Shankar, EY UK & Ireland Managing Partner for Technology, Media and Telecoms (TMT).

BT and Toshiba have a long history of working together on quantum technology, previously collaborating via the BT Labs in Martlesham Heath, Suffolk, and the Toshiba Cambridge Research Laboratory. Back in October 2020, the two companies announced the first UK deployment of QKD technology, transmitting quantum-secured data between the National Composites Centre and the Centre for Modelling & Simulation, both of which are situated in Bristol. 

Since then, the partnership has continued to develop steadily, with the pair announcing the deployment of a quantum-secured metro network in London, connecting various sites, including London Docklands, the City, and the M4 Corridor, back in October last year.

In recent years, the development of quantum technology has been spurred directly by the UK government, which announced its “strategic intent” to develop the UK as a quantum-enabled economy back in 2020. At the time, the government committed to creating a National Quantum Computing Centre by 2022 and investing £1 billion in a National Quantum Technologies Programme.

But despite this focus, the realities of creating a quantum economy are still many years away.

“This is a significant moment in the UK’s journey towards a quantum-enabled economy, but we’re not there yet. Further investment commitments will be required to broaden the study of quantum technologies that will contribute to this new economy, including quantum computing, quantum cryptography and quantum communications. We look forward to working with our government and industry partners to continue the momentum BT has started and shaping the UK’s quantum strategy,” said BT’s Chief Technology Officer, Howard Watson.

Nonetheless, as quantum technology comes of age, opportunities for revenue generation for the likes of BT will be significant. 

“I think we’ll start to see revenue being generated from this, I reckon 18 months,” said Watson, as reported by Bloomberg. “We like to think that a business is worth putting all this effort in now, if in 10 years’ time we can see it’s generating revenues in the order of half a billion.”

How will quantum computing change the face of cybersecurity for operators? Listen to the operators in discussion at this year’s live Connected Britain event