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May 14, 2023 | Tom Ballard

East Tennessee native helping deploy first U.S. quantum network

The first nodes in the EPB Quantum Network powered by Qubitekk will be deployed in July, making Chattanooga the first in the country and only second in the world to have such a powerful network.

Imagine that earlier in your life, you had just graduated from Rutledge High School in rural Grainger County, and today you are integrally involved in building a quantum network, one of only two anywhere in the world.

That’s the experience that Duncan Earl, President and Chief Technology Officer of Qubitekk, shared during Wednesday’s CO.MOBILITY Summit in Chattanooga that was organized by The Company Lab. His journey has included degrees from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and 18 years as a researcher at Oak Ridge National Laboratory before founding the San Diego-based company a decade ago.

In a fireside chat moderated by Dave Flessner (pictured here on the right), Business Editor of The Chattanooga Times Free Press, Earl outlined that journey with quantum technologies that will be deployed in the nation’s first commercial network in downtown Chattanooga in July. Named the EPB Quantum NetworkSM powered by Qubitekk, it will be America’s first industry-led, commercially available quantum network designed for private companies as well as government and university researchers to run quantum equipment and applications in an established fiber optic environment.

The deployment in about two months is something that has been a dream of Earl’s for years.

“When I got into quantum, it was mostly academic research,” he told attendees at the Summit. “It (the founding of Qubitekk and quantum itself) was very early. It took the rest of the world 10 years to catch up.”

Today, working in collaboration with EPB, the two entities will be deploying the first quantum network for businesses outside of China roughly eight months after the announcement that the two organizations were collaborating (see article from November 2022 here).

EPB was not the initial target partner when the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) funded what Earl described as “a very rudimentary quantum network.” Yet, after two years of working with an unnamed utility in California, he said DOE suggested Qubitekk consider EPB.

The company did its due diligence and “never experienced a community where the citizens loved their cable provider” that had also deployed the nation’s first gigabit network.

Explaining that quantum technology is at the same stage as the early days of the internet, Earl said there were three legs of the proverbial stool:

  • Quantum computers that are faster than today’s computers;
  • Sensors that can detect things not possible today; and
  • Communications that provide unparalleled security are not possible with current options.

When the first nodes on the quantum network go live in July, a priority will be attracting companies to Chattanooga to test use cases. It is a key economic development driver, along with having the workforce, which will allow Chattanooga to be viewed as the “Quantum Valley,” clearly a tip of the hat to the famous Silicon Valley.

“We are just now understanding what the use cases might be,” Earl said, but suggested that an early candidate is security for financial organizations. “Long-term encryption is one we know for sure.”

Unlike many start-ups that want to avoid collaborating with their competitors, Qubitekk’s Founder has just the opposite philosophy. He sees partnerships with other firms developing quantum technologies as a way to accelerate the deployment of quantum networks across the country and beyond.

In answer to a question from Flessner, Earl said rates for the use of the network nodes have not been set, but “we’re close.”

Qubitekk has its local office in the Edney Innovation Center where it hopes to attract companies that want to test applications. The company is also raising a Series A that Earl hopes to complete later this summer.

“The whole city is beginning to mobilize around this new technology,” he added.

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