Emperors of applesauce

April 1, 2002
Stephen M. Hardy
Editorial Director and Associate Publisher
[email protected]

There's a saying I heard once about when your apples start to spoil, you can always make applesauce. Lest we start thinking that it's gloom and doom everywhere this year, allow me to present the emperors-apparent of applesauce: the free-space optical systems vendors. The free-space companies I talk to are actually excited about the year 2002. That's because the factors that currently inhibit most of the optical systems market actually help them.

Take, for example, the fact that much of the major carriers' capital expenditures this year is going toward the deployment of 2.5G and 3G wireless. As fiber folks have long noted, an increase in the bandwidth being carried over wireless access networks creates a need for bigger pipes for backhaul traffic. In the past, this phenomenon has led to calls for increased fiber and optical equipment deployment. However, carriers have clearly stated their desire to avoid laying new fiber anytime soon. Thus, the free-space systems vendors say they're seeing a new RFP every week from wireless carriers that want a wireless solution to their backhaul problems. While this trend has emerged worldwide, European and Asian carriers appear to be leading the way as far as interest in free-space optical options. But the vendors with whom I've spoken say that interest in North America also is on the rise.

Disaster recovery represents another burgeoning application. As we reported earlier, the emergency situation in Manhattan allowed free-space optics to get its foot in doors that might otherwise have taken years to open.

Such opportunities are essential for the continued growth of free-space optics deployment. For, despite the factors just cited, the technology continues to face hurdles. The primary obstacle is the inherent distrust of unfamiliar technology within the carrier community. I recall a conversation with an engineer at an emerging optical carrier that had certified free-space optics for use within its network. The engineer lamented the difficulty he was having getting his engineers in the field to deploy the systems they were being sent. The field personnel didn't have experience with the technology and didn't want to have to deal with any customer complaints that might ensue.

The relative immaturity of the technology feeds into such fears. I have heard stories from free-space vendors who describe how their new systems are replacing competitors' products that didn't fit the customer's requirements or didn't meet performance promises. That's fine for the vendors telling the story, but inferior systems rushed out the door to take advantage of an initial market opportunity threaten to stain an entire technology.

These hurdles are certainly not insurmountable, and it seems to me that free-space optics may indeed be one point of excitement in an otherwise subdued market.