by Stephen Hardy
September 16–20 the European Conference on Optical Communications (ECOC) returns to Amsterdam for the first time since 2001. This will be my first time in Amsterdam since then, and I’m looking forward to revisiting a great city to see what’s new.
Of course, the return of ECOC to Amsterdam also offers the opportunity to revisit how the show and the industry it serves have changed as well. That earlier ECOC occurred just after the air began leaking out of the era’s optical communications bubble. Nearly 2,000 delegates attended the event, and about 350 exhibitors vied for their attention between conference sessions. Last year’s event in Geneva attracted more than 5,000 visitors (a figure that could include exhibitor personnel); organizers expect “over” 350 exhibitors at this year’s ECOC.
This year’s conference will undoubtedly continue the show’s fine tradition of presenting the latest in cutting edge research that offers glimpses into what we can expect to see available 5, 10, or 25 years down the road. Meanwhile, on the show floor, the conversations will likely focus on the shorter term.
That’s one area where we will see a difference between ECOC at Amsterdam, then and now. Then, for example, we were just thinking about making 40-Gbps transmission practical. This year, we’ll be talking in the same terms about 400 Gbps. Back then, we discussed how many wavelengths could be squeezed through a DWDM port. Now, we’ll be estimating how many directions such wavelengths can take through reconfigurable optical add/drop multiplexers.
Of course, the optical communications industry has seen a fair amount of change since 2001 that has little to do with the technology. Companies within the vendor space, particularly at the component and subsystem level, have gone from star pupils to problem children in the eyes of the financial community. Carriers created a fiber glut, then worked through it. There are fewer of these carriers building national networks with glass – but more adding fiber to regional, metro, and access networks (and, it seems, submarine links). More enterprises have incorporated optical technology into their infrastructures as well. And while wireless technology has replaced fiber optics in terms of visibility, its growing ubiquity has created demand for fiber-fed mobile backhaul networks.
But a few things about the optical communications industry now seem very similar to what we experienced then. Chief among these is the fact that the days of being able to make money without making anything are gone. In fact, for many companies, it remains difficult to bring in sufficient revenue regardless of how many products they develop. There were too many companies in 2001 for the amount of business available. Many think the same condition holds true today.
In some ways, innovation in the optical communications industry needs to focus on business models as much as technology. There undoubtedly will be another ECOC in Amsterdam – will attendance be up or down?