Election eve--and the morning after

April 1, 1998

Election eve--and the morning after

Stephen M. Hardy

Editor in Chief

[email protected]

The annual Conference on Optical Fiber Communication (ofc) is always an active event. New products are introduced, alliances are revealed, and technological advances are discussed. With all the networking going on, you`d almost expect someone to introduce an operational support system to manage it.

This year`s conference, held February 23 to 27 in San Jose, CA, exceeded the standards of previous events in pretty much every category. Yet one of the most important topics of conversation on the show floor and in the halls between technical sessions centered on another meeting happening at the same time hundreds of miles away--a gathering of the Telecommunications Industry Association`s TR-41.8.1 Working Group, which was ready to vote on a potential new connector standard for premises applications.

Walking the exhibit floor in San Jose, I almost felt as if I were at the national convention of a major political party that was about to nominate a presidential candidate. Because of ofc`s importance to the community, all the leading connector candidates had representatives at the show; while these representatives weren`t necessarily wearing campaign buttons or waving placards, electioneering was definitely in the air.

Like a candidate with a big lead in the polls, the mt-rj team--amp Inc., Fujikura, Hewlett-Packard, Siecor, and US Conec--swept into ofc with smiles of quiet confidence and a spring in their step. The mt-rj was the only small-form connector selected to compete in this round of voting. The team had been keeping tabs on the electorate, their representatives told me; victory was not a foregone conclusion, they said modestly, but things looked pretty good. Apparently, other companies agreed. Everyone loves a winner, and several firms, including Cabletron Systems, Cisco Systems, and xlnt Corp., had jumped on the bandwagon by choosing small-form-factor transceivers incorporating the mt-rj connector for their networking products.

Meanwhile, the other small-form connector producers--3M (the Volition VF-45), Lucent (the LC), Panduit (the OptiJack), and a team of ibm and Siecor (the sc/dc)--were preparing to bravely soldier on in the face of what looked like certain defeat. Speaking to representatives of some of these companies was like listening to someone rehearsing a concession speech.

Of course, as any politico will tell you, no pre-election poll is foolproof. Mid-way through ofc, word came that the mt-rj had received 59% of the final tally--percentage points shy of the two-thirds majority it needed for approval. The results weren`t exactly on the scale of "Dewey Defeats Truman," but the surprise, delight, or despair (depending upon which corner of the exhibit floor you were visiting) that ensued were no less genuine. Now the mt-rj people were grim-faced, while "let the market decide" changed from a plea to a battle cry in the mouths of the other manufacturers.

Aside from wondering what happened (a question we`ll attempt to answer in next month`s issue), the community is now left to ponder what the vote portends for the future of these connectors and the fiber-in-the-premises applications for which they were designed. Does the poll result mean that the SC connector, which is the "official" connector for the current standard, will sweep aside these new connectors and control premises applications? Not likely--the small-form connectors were proposed for the new standard because they truly represent an improvement over the SC, particularly in terms of size and price. While none of the new generation of connectors will be the "standard" connector, most, if not all of them, will eventually attain the status of "standard-compliant." In the spirit of "let the market decide," the market is likely to choose the cost and efficiency benefits of the small-form connectors.

The question, of course, is: Which connector will the market select? Unfortunately, the vote leaves the end-user facing potential chaos--five "compliant" connector technologies that won`t work with each other. If the user chooses a cabling approach based on one connector, is he or she locked into that vendor for life? To avoid this trap, will users have to buy equipment compatible with several different interface cards?

The market may indeed have been given the power to decide--but that power could prove difficult to wield.

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