Tunables tune up

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The telecoms downturn has focused carriers on cutting CapEx by postponing adoption of speculative technologies like tunable lasers, especially while they have inventories of fixed-wavelength lasers. Consequently, tunables won't sell in volume until 2004, says Communications Industry Researchers analyst Lisa Huff.

The downturn is leading to some system makers disposing of their optical component units, including tunable technology, while some start-ups are running out of funds. This has led to consolidation and acquisitions among suppliers.

In July, ADC said it was closing its tunable laser division in Järfälla, Sweden (acquired with start-up Altitun in May 2000) and transferring manufacturing to Minnesota.

At OFC this year, Blue Sky Research demonstrated its 50–200GHz-channel-spaced TL1550 C-band tunable, for production in Q3/2002, with 25GHz and L-band versions in development, but it says its tunable laser project is now on hold.

Bandwidth9 recently laid off 60% of its staff. However, at last month's NFOEC, it demonstrated its 2.5Gbit/s widely tunable C- and L-band MetroFlex G2, with reach extended to 400km (with a 10Gbit/s version planned).

Since May Nortel Networks has been aiming to sell its High Performance Optical Components Division. This includes tunable laser maker CoreTek, bought in 2000 for USD1.43bn in stock. Those interested in acquiring CoreTek, says CIBC World Markets, include Sumitomo and Bookham Technology.

Bookham has already acquired tunable laser technology in February with Marconi Optical Components. At ECOC Bookham presented a laser with a new tuning mechanism that allows each of the 80 50GHz-spaced channels to have both good side-mode suppression ratio of about 50dB and power uniformity within 3dB for C-band DWDM.

New Focus sold its tunable laser business to Intel. "There was still an issue with manufacturing and packaging, and we didn't want to deal with that ourselves," said CFO Bill Potts. Intel has also just acquired the planar hybrid integration technology of Sparkolor, which could make tunable filters and reconfigurable OADMs.

Santur Corp launched its initial product, the 10mW C-band TL1010-C tunable laser at OFC, and in June it secured USD23m in second-round funding to complete Telcordia qualification as well as to "accelerate product delivery and development" (with 20mW and L-band versions also sampled). Also at NFOEC, Princeton Optronics demonstrated its 30mW PowerSweep 25GHz-channel-spaced C-band laser. "Demonstrating a minimum of 30mW illustrates substantial manufacturing margin for the highly-sought-after 20mW, full C-band specification," said Princeton's Timothy Hays.

Fujitsu Network Communications is seeing significant deployment of its tunable lasers, but this is partly due to its own Flashwave DWDM systems being switched over to tunables. "Fujitsu was one of the first optical transport companies to ship 4-channel narrowly-tunable lasers in May 2000," said Steve Carlton, VP of photonic products.

At SuperComm 2002 Fujitsu announced the integration of 22-channel widely tunable lasers covering the entire C and L bands on its Flashwave 7300 high-density transponders (which had been launched in April). The company also introduced its next-generation Flashwave 7500 metro ring platform, which uses a tunable laser in each line-card rather than two transmitters and an OEO conversion.

In March iolon extended its 20mW Apollo widely tunable C- or L-band lasers from 100 50GHz-spaced channels to 200 25GHz-spaced channels. In April it closed a USD7.6m third round of funding, bringing total funding to USD85m. "Supplier viability has become a key requirement," said CEO John Clark. "We have extended our self-funding well into 2004."

iolon has already shipped its Apollo to Innovance Networks and Corvis Corp. Henceforth it will be shipped both as primary transmitters and back-ups in the new 16-channel tunable version of Lucent Technologies' LambdaXtreme Transport DWDM systems. This will cover the entire spectrum with eight tunable Optical Transponder Units (OTUs) rather than 128 "fixed" OTUs. Using tunables will save 75-80% on the cost of spares, says Anand Krishna, director of product management for the LambdaXtreme. Lucent is lining up a second source for tunables.

In mid-2001 Agility Communications gained USD150m in funding. This should last well beyond first volume shipments in mid-2003, says VP of marketing Kevin Affolter. In September Lightscape Networks integrated Agility's widely tunable 100-channel C-band 4245 EML into its XDM hybrid optical networking platform for metro and cellular networks. This created a tunable line-card which supports 50 and 100GHz channel spacing, general available in Q4/2002.

Lightscape offers backwards compatibility with its current installed base, allowing carriers to enhance their systems without replacing equipment. Agility's transmitter costs "between one and two times" the cost of a fixed-wavelength module, says Lightscape's VP of marketing Ido Gur. Agility has similar contracts with two other vendors who are "as big as, if not bigger than, Lightscape," says Martin.

In the forecast Tunable Lasers and Filters: Awaiting Their True Role, RHK says it is aware of three other vendors planning to launch such line-cards in 2003, indicating that widely tunable lasers are ready for network deployment. It is a way for system vendors to differentiate their products in a depressed market, it says.

Most significant may be that Intel last month launched its TXN13500 8-Channel Tunable DWDM Optical Transceiver and IXF30009 Optical Transport Processor DWDM line-card. The TXN13500 (available in Q1/2003) uses tunables from an external supplier.

However, Intel will ultimately use its own tunables, which should add to the impetus for the adoption of tunable lasers in optical networking equipment.

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