Scientists have developed a prototype system that could hypothetically see data transfer rates hit 10 terabits per second – or many thousands of times faster than your average broadband speed, in other words.

This radical jump could be made possible by switching to an extremely high frequency for the data transfer, allowing for more bandwidth (a greater volume of data) to be squeezed into the same space, and boosting the overall transfer rate.

There has previously been some doubt as to whether a higher frequency wave structure (or waveguide) such as the one explored here could be sufficiently protected against interference, but with this latest study, the scientists think they may have cracked the problem.

"It is exciting to show that a waveguide can support a data rate of 10 terabits per second, even if only over a short range," says physicist Daniel Mittleman, from Brown University in Rhode Island.

"That's well beyond what anybody has previously envisioned."

"Our work demonstrates the feasibility of this approach to high-rate data transmission, which can be further exploited when the sources and detectors reach the appropriate level of maturity."

The work builds on the existing principles of digital subscriber line or DSL services, which enable broadband connection speeds through standard phone lines. In this case though, the signal frequency gets ramped up to 200 gigahertz rather than just a few megahertz.

By using a device with two parallel wires held together in a metal sheath, the team then measured the energy output on a 13 mm x 13 mm (0.51 inch x 0.51 inch) grid of squares.

Based on their calculations, the researchers say speeds of up to 10 terabits per second should be possible over 3 metres (nearly 10 feet), dropping to 30 gigabits per second over 15 metres (nearly 50 feet).

The lack of a longer range was due to energy lost through the metallic enclosure, and one potential next step could be to look at how to reduce that resistance. Even as it stands though, the technique could be useful over short distances – inside a data centre, say.

Further experiments could see the rate speed or the range extend even further, which might be enough to keep us going until quantum internet arrives. It's one of several innovations scientists are exploring as our need for super-fast data transfer grows.

"The rise in consumer data usage has increased the demand for higher data rates in telecommunication in both wireless and wired systems," write the researchers in their newly published paper.

"As the demand increases for higher data rates in both wired and wireless systems, dramatic steps will be necessary for technology to keep pace."

The research has been published in Applied Physics Letters.