Optical power meters still critical
The outlook for optical power meters may not be as bleak as some test devices; measuring optical power is compulsory even when lighting existing fiber, which carriers continue to do. Recent improvements to the devices and a shift in the competitive landscape have resulted in a market that, though weak at best, is hardly static.
A power meter used to be a standalone device, either benchtop or handheld, whose main function was to measure the average optical power of light traveling through a system, component, or length of fiber. Then test vendors began to integrate power meters with a light source to create an optical loss test set (OLTS), which still provides the most accurate loss reading of a fiber—even more accurate than an optical time domain reflectometer (OTDR), contends Steve Colangelo, product manager of handheld devices at NetTest (Utica, NY). "They are still used as the primary source for measuring optical loss budgets," he reports.
Today, necessity and cost are driving integration even further. "In both the field and the lab, you have to use multiple test instruments to make the various tests you need," explains Sailaja Tennati, industry analyst with market researcher Frost & Sullivan (New York City). "Companies are finding that it's difficult to interconnect all these different instruments. They would prefer to have a single box in a modular format where they can insert as many modules as they want to make the necessary measurements, including power measurements."
NetTest's recently released CMA5000 multilayer network test platform calculates optical power as well as optical return loss, optical time domain reflection, and dispersion, for example. The Optical Standards Tester (OST) from startup Circadiant Systems (Allentown, PA) combines optical power measurement with SONET/SDH, packet over SONET, and 10-Gigabit Ethernet (10-GbE) LAN and WAN protocol analysis. And EXFO's FTB-400 Universal Test System (UTS) performs more than 1,000 different testing combinations, including basic optical power measurement.
The basic power meter itself has improved over time. Because network operators employ fewer technicians in the field, many of whom may not be fiber experts, power meters have to do much of the work that was once done manually. Today's devices feature more automation, providing on-the-spot pass/fail diagnoses. They also typically incorporate storage capabilities; in the past, a network operator would test a system with a power meter and record the reading in a notebook. New-generation power meters can store and document that information.
Flexibility is also critical. "We see a lot of different network deployments, including PON [passive optical networking], FTTP [fiber to the premises], access, metro, LAN, and WAN applications. They all use different configurations and different transmission wavelengths," explains Marie-Claude Michel, product manager, Network Service Provider Division, EXFO (Quebec). "People are looking for more flexibility, more calibrated wavelengths to make sure they can measure the power of these various networks."
As amplifier deployments have increased, end users have also been asking for the ability to read higher and higher powers, observes NetTest's Colangelo. Power meters from past generations "used to hit maybe 10 dBm on the high side or 20 dBm with some kind of filtering," he notes. "A lot of the amplifiers in use now are putting out 23 dBm or even hotter in some cases." NetTest's most recent power meter measures up to 30 dBm, for example.
The competitive landscape has certainly shifted in the past 12-18 months. In 2001, Acterna led the market for power meters on the strength of its reputation among carriers for being especially user-friendly, says Frost & Sullivan's Tennati.
Two recent events have altered the market. NetTest was acquired last December by Danish equity fund Axcel. The company is now debt-free, under new management, and committed to its two core business units—testing instruments and monitoring systems—which puts NetTest "in a better position," says Tennati, who expects the company to continue developing new products.
Perhaps the biggest change in the market, however, has been Acterna's recent bankruptcy filing. There has been no word yet when the company expects to come out of Chapter 11 or what its plan is, which makes Acterna a bit of a wild card. "I'm not saying people will stop buying from Acterna, but many companies may be hesitant to buy from a company that has filed for Chapter 11, because support may be an issue," admits Tennati. "The good thing about Acterna—it had a very strong brand presence, and that counts for a lot in the marketplace."
The company in the best position, according to Tennati, may be EXFO, which remains financially strong and is committed to new-product development. Success in the power-meter market—and, by extension, the test equipment market in general—"will depend on how much revenue [a company] can put into R&D and how much brand loyalty [it has]," reasons Tennati.
Meghan Fuller is the news editor at Lightwave.