A spirit of cooperation

Nov. 1, 1997

A spirit of cooperation

Stephen M. Hardy

I`ve recently returned from having my brain stuffed with details of fiber technology advances and market penetration, courtesy of the 20th Annual Newport Conference on Fiberoptics Markets held by Kessler Marketing Intelligence Corp. While the event`s focus was obviously on the what, how, and when of fiber`s climb up what was repeatedly labeled "hockey stick" growth curves, the organizers did a good job of opening the floor to representatives of other technologies that are frequently seen as fiber`s competitors. Time constraints prevent a full rundown of events from appearing until next issue. (How`s that for a teaser?) However, one thing that struck me during the seminar was how frequently these "competitors" were portrayed as fiber`s compatriots.

First up to bat was the president of a company that specializes in broadband satellite communications, among other areas. He portrayed satellite and fiber systems as complementary technologies that have a place side by side in a global communications company`s portfolio. For example, he said, satellite links could be used to relieve traffic congestion from undersea fiber cable systems during the hours of peak usage, particularly if low-priority files can be identified and rerouted. Conversely, satellites also could be used to route traffic to transoceanic cable landing points for undersea transmission during off-peak hours. Satellite links could be leased to provide service quickly in areas where fiber plant has yet to be installed as well. The bottom line, according to this source, was that both satellites and fiber could easily coexist if each technology played to its strengths.

Another presentation examined the future of wireless local loops (wlls), one of the technologies that are sometimes seen as standing in the way of fiber-to-the-curb and fiber-to-the-home. wlls can be installed more quickly than wireline systems, provide more flexibility (read: mobility), and offer significant cost advantages in rural applications, said the speaker. However, the installed cost per subscriber tends to be higher for wll, it doesn`t yet provide the service quality or bandwidth of wireline, and spectrum availability can be problematic. Thus, said the speaker, fiber-in-the-loop and wlls will likely combine to eat away at the installed base of copper, not each other`s market share. wll could even "seed the market" for fiber, he theorized. Service providers could install wll systems in areas with little local loop structure to determine where fiber will eventually be needed. "The consensus seems to be that there is room for both technologies to grow in the years to come," in the words of the white paper that accompanied the presentation.

Peace and love even extended to fiber`s internecine conflicts. Plastic optical fiber does not compete with its glass brethren, emphasized the sales and marketing manager of a Japanese company that hopes to move the technology from lighting and industrial applications to the desktop and home communications environments. With improved transmission loss figures and a new Asynchronous Transfer Mode standard that includes a plastic optical fiber at 50-m distances, the stage is set for such a migration, he claimed. Once again, the speaker held up copper as the shared target of glass and plastic; if copper is the Goliath of the office environment and fiber is David, then plastic is the rock in David`s sling, he said.

As a child of the sixties (a very, very young one, mind you), I find all this harmony gratifying--but a bit suspect. It reminds me of a game I used to play when I was little, called "Kill the Guy with the Ball." For those of you unfamiliar with this rather aggressive form of horseplay, one person ran around the neighborhood carrying a ball, while the remaining players tried to wrest it from him or her in whatever manner feasible. This usually required that everyone jump on the ball carrier to flatten that person into submission. Then the ball was freed for another brave soul to scoop up and try to possess for as long as possible.

Right now, copper has the ball--but technologies like fiber, satellites, and terrestrial wireless are close on its heels. The view from this desk is that fiber is the biggest and swiftest pursuer, and will be the first to tackle copper to the ground. But if fiber manages to gain control of the ball, it shouldn`t count on the continued cooperation of its fellow "compatriots." q

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