IBM has built a prototype optical transceiver chipset it says will let people download movies or other data eight times faster than current technology.

The chipset can move data at 160Gbit/s by representing data as light pulses instead of electrons and could be used for both corporate and consumer applications as soon as 2010, IBM said.

Consumer demand for digital movies, music and photos has caused an explosion in the amount of data transferred over the internet, and underlined the need for greater bandwidth and connectivity, said T.C. Chen, vice president for science and technology at IBM Research, in a statement.

IBM says it can meet that need, making an optical transceiver with standard CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor) technology, and combining that with optical components crafted from exotic materials such as indium phosphide and gallium arsenide. The result is just 3.25mm by 5.25mm in size, small enough to be used on an printed circuit board.

Although all those technologies exist today, it will probably be at least three years until suppliers can produce enough parts for IBM to bring optical transceivers into its product stream, the company said.

When it does arrive, it could have an immediate impact on applications from computing to communications and entertainment. A PC using that board would be able to reduce the download time of a typical high-definition feature-length movie from 30 minutes to one second, the company said.

The demand for bandwidth has also pushed other chipmakers to explore optical circuits. In September, researchers at Intel and the University of California at Santa Barbara said they had discovered how to build low-cost "laser chips" that move data much faster than standard copper wire interconnects. That could help eliminate the bottleneck of feeding data to processors that are becoming ever faster according to Moore's Law, they said. And in December, IBM said it had found a way to slow down speeding photons, allowing them to store data as light instead of electricity.

IBM did the work with funding from the US Department of Defense's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Researchers will present details of the project on 29 March in a report at the Optical Fiber Conference in Anaheim, California. The full name of the chipset is the "160Gb/s, 16-channel, full-duplex, single-chip CMOS optical transceiver."