Professor Tim Gibbon shares his expertise on the newly formed Centre For Broadband Communication.

Can you briefly explain what the focus of the centre will be and how the centre was formed.

The focus of the Centre For Broadband Communication is to develop key enabling technologies for broadband connectivity and Big Data projects such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope project. It is formed through partnership with NMMU, the Department of Science and Technology and key industry leader CISCO.  The Centre has been created from the Optical Fibre Research Unit in the Department of Physics.


Will there be any financial support available to students through this program?

Yes, there are numerous bursaries available all the way from undergraduate to doctorate level. SKA South Africa has always been very generous with the financial support of our students. As the Centre develops over time, so do the exciting opportunities for our students.


What is your and the Physics department’s involvement in the SKA project?

Our Centre is a full Signal and Data Transport (SADT) Consortium designing and building the SKA telescope. This involves exciting research into next-generation systems for very extreme data transport. Data rates exceeding terabits per second need to be transmitted over many thousands of kilometres of optical fibre. In addition to this data, timing signals from atomic clocks need to be transmitted as lightwaves with femtosecond precision. NMMU is part of a global team tackling extreme research challenges such as these.


What is the link between Physics and Computing Sciences?

Telecommunication networks of the future require advanced in-built intelligence, which allows for optimum network operation and resource usage. For example, if an optical fibre link is damaged or broken by an earthquake then the network should automatically and instantaneously become aware of this and heal itself by rerouting gigabits of data traffic. Physics research provides the hardware devices to make this possible, while Computing Science research provides algorithms to add the network intelligence layer. The NMMU Computing Science Department has excellent expertise in optimization and computational intelligence, with work lead by Dr MC Du Plessis. Computing Sciences is an invaluable part of the Centre.


With regards to students, what will their involvement entail, will there be any international ties created or exchange programs?

The postgraduate students play an integral part in the Centre, tackling the exciting challenges through their master’s and doctorate projects. Apart from the bursaries on offer, the students get to work on cutting edge, research topics. CISCO has generously provided over R50 million worth of equipment to the Centre, along with CISCO Industry leading expertise. The students have access to these resources, which is a wonderful opportunity for them. Furthermore, the SKA project creates a collaborative melting pot of Physicists, Computer Scientists, Engineers and Astronomers, all working together towards a common goal of building and operating the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope. So it is a wonderful training ground for students.


What is the duration of the project and will it be more aligned to post-grad studies?

The SKA is a long-term project, with construction of the telescope taking place in a number of stages and extending beyond 2020. The focus of NMMU’s work is at postgraduate level. There are also many opportunities for undergraduates to also be involved and play a role. Particularly for undergraduates that have a strong interest in optical communication or computer science and who are considering studying further.


You were involved in the initial SKA project and created a link from this project; does this Centre have any relation to the link you created with the SKA project.

Many years ago I was fortunate enough to be one of the first students as part of the NMMU Optical Fibre Unit, founded by Prof Andrew Leitch in 2001. Over the years the unit has grown from strength-to-strength, to the point where NMMU is currently the leading optical communication research group in South Africa. Our proud involvement in the SKA project, along with the formation of the Centre bears testament to this. This is the culmination of effort and hard work of many people at NMMU, staff and students included.