Test-equipment distributors link manufacturers and customers

Oct. 1, 1999

Fiber-optic test-equipment distributors work on the same middle ground and face the same challenges as distributors in other markets. They can either thrive on, or succumb to, the task of building a strong relationship with equipment vendors wanting more and more of their products placed into customer's hands. On the other side, the distributor must work one-on-one with customers representing the vendors and their products. They must instill confidence and trust in those customers by having an intimate knowledge of the products they sell. Their reputation for customer service depends on being able to explain how a product operates and how to use it.

The relationship with the vendor requires them to know what products are hot and what products are not, getting above the deluge of marketing hype. When everybody's widget is the "best," it becomes the distributor's unenviable task to get down to the basic functionality of a product and determine under what circumstances it may excel. Getting training directly from the vendor is a critical necessity.

"As a distributor, it is imperative that we continue developing a relationship with our vendor," says Brian Molis, director of marketing at Fiber Instrument Sales Inc. (FIS--Oriskany, NY), a company that manufactures and distributes its own line of products. "FIS asks vendors to teach in-house training so that our sales and customer-service people know how each product operates. Also, understanding the goals of each company is imperative to a lasting partnership."

Hot products in fiber-optic test equipment were a subject most distributors thought best left to the manufacturers. FIS says their optical verifier--a multifunction fiber-optic field tester with a power meter--is doing quite well.

Stephen Montgomery, president of Electronicast Corp., a market research firm located in San Mateo, CA, closely monitors the trends in fiber-optic test equipment. According to Montgomery, hot products include:

  • Polarization-mode dispersion analyzers, which will increase in importance as the optical-transmission rate increases.
  • Optical-spectrum analyzers, which are used in evaluation of wavelength-division multiplexing (WDM), erbium-doped fiber amplifiers, distributed-feedback lasers, light-emitting diodes, and other applications where adjustment and measurement are critical.
  • Remote fiber-test systems composed of hardware and software to monitor and analyze fiber networks automatically. As more and more fiber is deployed with relatively fewer and fewer technicians to maintain the infrastructure, automated test operations at "unmanned remote sites" may require this equipment.
  • All-in-one test equipment, or equipment with multitask capabilities that can be enhanced by inserting modules. These products are finding popularity in field applications, particularly outside or handheld product designs.
  • As the use of fiber-optic technology increases in private and local-area data networks, low-priced, handheld units to accommodate multimode installations will become increasingly useful.

The future looks good for other test-equipment products as well. Don Skinner, vice president of Eastern region telephone accounts at Power & Telephone Supply Co. (Memphis, TN) expects dense WDM test equipment to continue doing well as customers seek to increase the capacity of their fiber infrastructures. Molis of FIS predicts a bright future for handheld optical time-domain reflectometers (OTDRs) and optical test sets for high-performance, singlemode applications, including cable-TV and telephony markets. "Test and measuring equipment that will meet the standards of Gigabit Ethernet should do well," says Molis, "as well as equipment that meets standards for fiber-to-the-desk (FTTD) applications."

Conversely, there are products that are beginning to curtail as new technologies continue to emerge throughout the telecommunications industry. For example, some distributors are observing the industry moving away from power meters that include more than the industry-standard wavelengths of 850, 1300, 1310, and 1550 nm. Installers are no longer finding themselves needing power meters that test additional wavelengths, such as 670 or 750 nm. Also, many customers working in the field are opting for more compact products that offer similar functionality to larger, more bulky models. Large OTDRs, for example, are slowly being replaced by smaller test machines. As older test equipment fades away, however, there are plenty of new products entering the market with the success of fiber-optic technology in such areas as video services, premises and access networks, and the advancement of FTTD. New standards and new markets are providing a boost to an already healthy test-equipment industry.

Keeping up with trends in the fiber-optic test-equipment market means keeping a finger on the pulse of the telecommunications industry in general. As the industry goes, so goes the test-equipment market. ElectroniCast's Montgomery provides a glimpse of what may lie ahead for distributors.

"As CLECs [competitive local-exchange carriers] and cable-TV MSOs [multiple system operators] are acquired by telcos, especially IXCs [interexchange carriers]," says Montgomery, "different sales channels may develop. This change may include direct sales from the test-equipment manufacturers."

But there's good news in the migration of fiber to the metropolitan, premises, and desktop markets. For example, Montgomery says the private data-network application will prove to be a high-unit volume market. The downside is that prices per unit will be substantially lower. Quality customer service and good vendor relationships are vital to distributors facing stiff and relentless competition from competing vendors. With a host of manufacturers competing in hundreds of market niches, that competition eventually drifts over to the distributors. Those distributors who focus on a global market rather than a national market may eventually emerge on top.

However, as important as global reach is, many test-equipment distributors still view the one-on-one customer relationship as the real key to selling their wares. "Manufacturers that have established distribution channels in their home markets are now trying to establish their names and expand their sales in the United States," says Bruce Girouard, national product manager at Graybar Electric Co. Inc. (St. Louis). "There may be opportunities for distributors to sell products offshore, but test-equipment sales are typically driven by "hands-on demonstrations."

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