About face

Last October, I blasted SBC for statements that led me to believe the carrier had leapt off the fiber to the premises (FTTP) bus (see "Everyone off the bandwagon?" October 2003, p. 12). I feel obligated to take back at least some of what I said now that the carrier has selected an FTTP systems vendor and announced plans for lab and field trials. Since SBC announced it had selected Alcatel as its supplier on the day this column was due (late, as always, and well after the rest of the magazine had already been put to bed), details of the carrier's plans aren't available to me as I write this. Still, while the company's announcement carries the caveat that deployment plans hinge on "clarification of any regulatory guidelines that would apply to FTTP networks" as well as how the Alcatel equipment performs in lab and field trials this year, it would indeed appear that the harsh words of SBC chief executive Ed Whitacre at a financial conference this past fall regarding the FCC's Triennial Review and the cost of FTTP deployment did not signal that SBC was washing its hands entirely of the technology.

Okay, so I was wrong on that one. (I hope—SBC subsequently bought back a bunch of stock with money it could have used for fiber deployment. We'll have a more complete report on FTTP's status in next month's issue.) Unfortunately, it's not the first time I've been wrong. Besides the occasional brain cramp displayed in articles or news stories over the past six years (and if you don't recall seeing them, don't think I'm going to remind you of where they've appeared), there have been a few times when I went out on a limb in this space, only to have the branch crack beneath me. In particular, I recall an editorial I wrote in February 2001 entitled "Trouble? What trouble?"

To quote myself: "Certainly the days of seemingly effortless 30% growth have passed. However, I don't see them being replaced by 30% declines. Instead, I foresee moderate growth that befits an industry whose products remain a necessity, even in a less free-spirited economy."

Gee, I wish I had been right about that. The analysts who were saying similar things at the time undoubtedly wish the same. You probably do too.

But while I wish my opinions and prognostications were unfailingly accurate, the fact they're not won't prevent me from offering them. The same goes for my staff. If you want proof, check out the accompanying edition of our annual Sourcebook, where we take a whack at naming the Top 5 companies in components/subsystems, systems, and test equipment, among other potentially controversial listings.

All of which is a very roundabout way of saying that I think the willingness to stick your neck out is a quality that should be valued. And that goes for the development of technology as equally as it does the development of opinions. With the optical ice age finally showing signs of relenting, it's time for companies to regain some of the pioneering entrepreneurial mindset that characterized the companies that were most successful before the market crashed (and to a large extent the ones that remain healthy now).

And that means it's time to invest. It's time to resurrect those R&D budgets and look at new-product developments. No, I'm not talking about products whose value proposition requires that carriers plow under their legacy infrastructure. But the fact that service providers like SBC are willing to at least dip their toes in the water when it comes to optical access infrastructure means that new ways of doing things, of evolving from the networks of today to an infrastructure that will support tomorrow's bandwidth and service demands, will draw attention and possible deployment if they make economic sense.

The revelation that some innovative component suppliers such as ASIP and Xponent have attracted funding recently is a positive sign in this direction. The growing success of Scintera Networks in electronic dispersion compensation also illustrates that new ideas combined with efficient execution can continue to move optical technology forward in hard times.

But startups can't and shouldn't carry the burden of innovation alone. The work established companies have done in such areas as 1300-nm VCSELs and multiservice provisioning platforms must be replicated in other areas.

While the lack of capital-expenditure resources clearly limits the ability of carriers to make wholesale changes to their networks, the demand for new services that can generate revenue will require more flexibility and horsepower than most current infrastructure can provide, particularly in the access arena. Service providers like SBC won't invest in optical communications equipment until the vendors of such hardware—and of the components that compose them—up their investments as well.

Stephen Hardy
Editorial Director
stephenh@pennwell.com

More in FTTH/B