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Internet ‘playground’ trials new tech to deliver smart cities

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The internet is ready for an upgrade. That’s according to UK researchers who are setting up an “internet playground” to try out new kinds of internet infrastructure on a national scale. They believe an improved internet could make a wide variety of new applications possible, from robotic surgery conducted from hundreds of miles away to musical duets performed by singers on different continents. “We know the internet needs reinventing,” says Dimitra Simeonidou at the University of Bristol. “It was originally designed for basic communication like email, and now we want 4K video available to us standing on the street.”

The Initiate project aims to test technologies that will make internet connections faster and more secure, and lay the groundwork for smart cities and other internet of things applications. “I work with a surgeon who takes a train to Leeds once a week to perform robotic surgery, but he wouldn’t need to go there if the internet was better,” says Toktam Mahmoodi at King’s College London. “He could do the same procedure remotely, saving lots of time and effort.”

Surgery risk
Current internet technology is not good enough fo­r such a critical application, she says. If a buffering wheel appears while streaming a film, it’s annoying; if one appears during surgery, it could be life threatening. But testing a new internet technology is complex, as you can’t just start messing with infrastructure that millions of people rely on. So the Initiate researchers are setting up their own internet – a test bed where it doesn’t matter if they break things. It all starts with a server in the town of Slough in Berkshire. From here, researchers at the universities of Bristol, Edinburgh, Lancaster and King’s College London will run their experiments. “We’ve rented high-speed fibre-optic cables to connect all of the different institutions, controlled from a server in Slough,” says Simeonidou. “We will be connecting everything from smart cities to 5G mobile internet.”

The researchers got access to the server and fibre cables on 1 February and are now starting to test various technologies. A team from Bristol will connect thousands of “smart city” sensorswhich detect everything from air quality and traffic flow to energy usage. Meanwhile, a group at Edinburgh will test a light-based alternative to Wi-Fi called Li-Fi, which uses LEDs to transfer data at high speeds. Many of these technologies already exist, says Polina Bayvel at University College London, but the new project will allow them to be tested at a national scale. “In the real world there’s more noise and temperature variation, which can make a difference [to how the technology performs],” she says.

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