Industry planners often focus on the next six months, and occasionally the next 15 months. This is understandable because corporate budgets, strategies and technology initiatives typically have annual horizons. Sometimes it is useful to look a few years out, realise where things might be going and then set road-map targets to be consistent with the overall technology trend.

One telecom area of growth in the immediate future is nanotechnology - specifically nanoelectronics, nanophotonics and quantum computing. Nanotechnology is the science and engineering of entities the size of 1 to 50 nanometers (nm) - a few billionths of a meter. This is the size range where physics (dealing with photons, electrons, atoms and molecules) intersects with biology in terms of DNA elements (DNA helix, a haemoglobin molecule, a cell's wall or a small virus). Because of the dimensions involved, the principles of quantum physics also apply.

Nanostructures, such as nanophotonic devices, nanowires, carbon nanotubes and plasmonics devices, are expected to be incorporated into telecoms components and microprocessors in the next few years, leading to more powerful communication systems and computers.

Nanoelectronics supports the design of nanoscale devices that have electronic properties such as transistor, switching, amplifying, tunnelling and/or logical relay capabilities. Silicon-based semiconductor technology has advanced at exponential rates in both performance and functionality over the past 50 years. There is a desire to continue to decrease gate sizes and increase intrinsic functionality. "Classical" methods have already reached 50nm, but further miniaturisation is sought. To achieve this, current microelectronics might have to be eclipsed by quantum-effect devices. Nanoscale researchers already work with electronic circuits as small as 10nm.

Through technological advances, Moore's Law - the doubling of the number of transistors that can be packed in an integrated circuit every 18 months - has remained accurate during the past 40 years. Observers expect this law will continue to hold for five more years; after that, it could break down, as the thickness of semiconductor layers reaches the single-digit nanoscale.

Replacement devices include smaller silicon transistors, single electron transistors, resonant tunnelling diodes, magnetic spin-based devices and molecular devices. Single-electron transistors have a switching capability controlled by removing or adding a single electron. Tunnelling is using quantum properties of electrons to allow transmission through a thin voltage-potential barrier. Spin nanoelectronics is the utilisation of the electron's spin for storage or computation.

Nanoelectronics is here: Magnetic RAM chips are shipping, organic light-emitting diode displays are in prototype, and carbon nanotube interconnects and nanowires will appear in a couple of years. Nanotechnology is entering the telecom and IT fields, so start learning about it now.

Minoli is an adjunct professor in the graduate school of New Jersey's Stevens Institute of Technology, and the author of a book on nanotechnology applications in telecoms, networking and IT.