Chan's architecture, which is called "flow switching," establishes a dedicated path across the network between locations that exchange large volumes of data -- from Silicon Valley to Boston, for instance. MIT explained that routers along that path would only accept signals coming from one direction and send them off in only one direction. Since the optical signals aren't coming from different directions, there's no need to convert them to electrical signals for storage in memory.
"If this can truly jack up Internet data speeds by 100 times, that would have a huge impact on the usability of the Net," said Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group Inc. "We'd see the era of 3D computing and fully immersive Internet experiences come much sooner.... If this turns out to be practical, it could be a very big step forward."
Dealing with network bottlenecks would be a huge accomplishment, said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at Enderle Group.
"Right now, the network is the bottleneck for hosted computing. This change could transform the industry as we know it," said Enderle. "We are going to need a faster Internet. We need it now. Currently, we only have about 20% [of available bandwidth] in many places."
Olds noted that there's no way to get around the fact that a faster Internet infrastructure will be needed to continue to push forward with better devices and applications.
"The Internet is going to have to become faster," he said. "We still have millions and millions of people added every year. But, just as importantly, consider the millions and millions of devices that are now vying for Net access -- all of the smartphones, sensors and other devices that need connectivity. All of these new users are generating new Web traffic and content at a furious pace, and the Internet needs to get faster to keep up."
Chan was quick to note that switching to optical fibers won't just mean better performance. It also will mean cheaper high-speed access.
"With bigger applications and more bottlenecks, you could buy extra bandwidth if you pay through the nose, but that's not something every user could do," Chan said. "Sure, you can increase the data rate, but it's expensive. With this new architecture, we can speed up the Internet but make high-speed access cheaper."
The MIT research team is testing the transport part of its architecture at Bell Labs in New Jersey, Chan said, and they're making sure the switch to all optical fibers won't cause any long-term effects on the Internet.
Chan, who is planning to start a company that will deploy and sell the technology, added that the next step will be to piggyback the new system onto some traditional networks in the U.S. in a limited trial.