The more things change, the more they don't

Feb. 1, 2004

No doubt the sharp-eyed among you noticed the "20th Anniversary" banner at the top of this issue. Yes, Lightwave has completed 20 years of optical communications coverage; our first issue appeared in January 1984. (So, mathematically speaking, last year was our 20th year. That's why I said we've completed 20 years. We will tout no achievements before their time.) Needless to say, the optical communications industry has seen a lot over these 20 years—and all of it appeared in the pages of Lightwave.

One of the advantages of age is the ability to look back and reflect on the past—and how that past led to our present circumstances. Looking back at the mimeographed copy of that first issue, I'm struck by how many of the articles echo the concerns of today. In fact, many of the articles, with the change of a few acronyms, would be as relevant in 2004 as they were back then.

For example, the cover story proclaimed, "Divestiture: new opportunities for lightwave." The article described how the breakup of AT&T would benefit optical communications technology, which the publication called "lightwave" before modesty and a lack of industry use of the term led us to discontinue the practice. Changes in regulation have often provided a market catalyst over the past 20 years, not only in the United States but also around the world. China's adoption of a more open market as part of its application to the World Trade Organization is a current example—as is the Federal Communications Commission's Triennial Review, which provided impetus for at least some of the RBOCs to look seriously at fiber to the premises in the United States.

The news stories also seem prescient. "Fiber LANs advance slowly," announces one news article. Certainly, that's still the case. As that article quoted someone from Honeywell, "[L]ightwave LANs will be confined to military or industrial applications until four developments take place: component standards, low-cost couplers, bus transceivers of lightwave integrated circuits, and guidelines for migration path from metallic to lightwave networks." Certainly, at least some of those standards are in place, and such organizations as the Telecommunications Industry Association's Fiber Optics LAN Section have helped to establish guidelines through its promotion of centralized cabling architectures. Still, with the exception of a role in the riser, optical cabling in LANs continues to be limited mainly to military and industrial networks. The advances of Category 5 and 6 cabling as well as a continued belief that optical technology is too expensive have continued to block the widespread adoption of fiber to the desktop.

Meanwhile, another news story questions whether "fiber-conscious telcos" could threaten cable TV companies, and a third story describes work in photonic ICs. The features also sound familiar. One is titled "Japan follows some different paths," which remains true today. Another describes "The fibering of Manhattan—and beyond" well before MFS (now AboveNet) decided to try the idea. Still another article describes "Cable's coming era of specialization." Anyone who has been shown standard singlemode, dispersion-shifted, nonzero dispersion-shifted, metro-focused, low water peak access, or laser-optimized LAN fiber cabling can attest to the accuracy of that assertion.

To me, the fact the stories in that first issue so closely echo the concerns of today is not so much a testament to the founding editors' ability to predict the future (although John Ryan, a member of that staff who later helped found RHK, might disagree) as it is a reflection of the many ways in which certain issues have always been relevant to optical communications. Like consumers of any other product, carriers and network managers perform a cost/benefit analysis when weighing the purchase of optical equipment. Both carriers and network managers usually find that the benefits of optical communications—traditionally, speedier line rates, greater bandwidth capacity, and a more robust upgrade path—come at a cost greater than whatever technology currently resides in the network. Add the inertia of wanting to leverage previous investments and in-house expertise, and it's no wonder the purveyors of optical equipment constantly find themselves having to refine their offerings to make them fit more readily into their customers' business plans and corporate culture. Sometimes a change in regulation is necessary to tip that cost/benefit balance in favor of fiber. Other times, it may be a technological breakthrough like photonic ICs that promises to change the equation.

Which is another way of saying I disagree that, in a post-bubble market, we face a "new world" that requires new thinking. Actually, the current market doesn't require much that's new—at least not if your viewpoint extends beyond 1999. Success still comes down to meeting or exceeding customer requirements at a price they can afford to pay. The requirements may change, but the goal remains the same.

As does our goal here at Lightwave to keep you informed. With 20 years under our belts, we believe in the future of fiber—and we can't wait to see how the next 20 years unfold.