All-optical networks arent around the corner, says analyst

Dec. 1, 1998

All-optical networks aren`t around the corner, says analyst

By STEPHEN HARDY

Unrealistic expectations have been raised in some quarters over the frenzy wavelength-division multiplexing (WDM) has created within the communications industry as well as the promise of future all-optical networks that the technology`s deployment portends. So says Barry Flanigan, senior analyst at Ovum Inc. (London), a market consultancy and research group. Flanigan believes that while the technology is ideal for certain applications in the short term, the development of all-optical networks based on WDM should be approached with extreme caution. He therefore believes the evolution toward all-optical networking, particularly for incumbent carriers, may be a slow one.

Flanigan developed his opinions in the course of compiling Ovum`s latest report, WDM: Global Strategies for Next Generation Networks. He says he has no quarrel with the notion that WDM has assumed an important role in many telecommunications networks. "It`s no news, really, that WDM is a success and that it`s been used to relieve fiber exhaust and increase network capacity," he says. "That`s not really the main issue of the study. What we`re trying to look at is what happens next."

What`s next isn`t the all-optical network, at least not in the short term. "I think it is sometimes forgotten amidst all the hype that WDM is still a very immature technology," he explains. "The standards are very immature. The network-management and performance-monitoring capabilities are very immature when you compare them to something like SONET [Synchronous Optical Network]. And all these issues have to be worked out before we`re going to see this future vision of an all-optical network."

Treading softly

Thus, Flanigan expects that established carriers in particular will tread softly when it comes to using WDM and complementary technologies to replace existing SONET infrastructures, despite the advances made in these areas. "There`s a real need for the carriers to gain experience with the technology. And what I don`t think they`re going to do--in fact, what they are not doing--is simply taking the vendors at their word and putting these things in and going for it wholeheartedly without actually assessing the impact on the network," Flanigan explains.

"Optical crossconnects are a good example. Current products are relatively primitive, and the large, robust, reliable, cost-effective products that will be needed are still some years away. So there`s a real focus among many of the carriers now to gain experience with the technology and understand the impact," he adds.

While the incumbents take a cautious, evolutionary approach toward all-optical networking, several new carriers have embraced optics as a means of attaining a competitive edge. Despite his cautionary viewpoint, Flanigan doesn`t take an entirely negative view of their prospects. "I think that it`s wrong to say that if they press ahead with the technology they are going to automatically run into problems," he says. "But I think they have to work very, very closely with the vendor in this and be cautious about what they`re implementing."

This close partnership is a necessity because the new carriers lack the experience and resources of the incumbents, says Flanigan. He reports such arrangements are cropping up worldwide. "A good example is Cable & Wireless Communications in the U.K., which has a partnership with Nortel to upgrade the whole of their U.K. network," he offers. "It`s a much tighter partnership than the traditional customer-supplier relationship, where they`re actually jointly designing and planning the network and evaluating different solutions. And I think we`re going to see a lot more of that sort of relationship between the vendor and the operator as these carriers start to evolve toward optical networking."

But these relationships have pitfalls of their own. A close arrangement with a single vendor invites a proprietary solution for a carrier`s new network. Given the realities of competition, new carriers cannot predict which networks--and which brands of equipment--will be linked with their infrastructure in the future. The use of network equipment that cannot operate compatibly in a multivendor environment will have disastrous consequences, Flanigan warns.

WDM grows globally

With these caveats in mind, Flanigan predicts that the use of WDM will continue to grow worldwide, although the pace of deployment will be different in each region of the globe. For example, vendors have frequently cited metropolitan networks as the next market WDM will penetrate in the United States. However, these vendors had better address the cost of their systems if they want to achieve their goals, Flanigan warns. "Near term, WDM has yet to break the significant price barriers in the metro environment that would make it the obvious solution in the majority of applications, such as is common in the long-haul network in the U.S.," he states.

It seems logical that cost would also be a barrier in Europe, as the continent has frequently been described as a web of interconnected metropolitan area networks. Flanigan reports that this facet of the European communications landscape has slowed WDM deployment in the past, particularly as several incumbents enjoy fiber-rich infrastructures that have yet to face capacity exhaust. However, four factors will lead to increased use of WDM technology in Europe, he says: growing bandwidth demand due to increased use and availability of the Internet; this year`s advent of competition; the emergence of pan-European network operators whose facilities will mirror the long-haul U.S. networks where WDM has enjoyed its greatest success; and the large number of undersea networks scheduled to land in Europe over the next few years.

In Asia, Flanigan sees the current economic conditions as a mere bump in the road. "In the longer term a lot of the upgrade projects are still in place, because the need to upgrade infrastructure is not going to go away. So I think the financial crisis is something that is inevitable to hit some investment in the short term, but longer term, we think it`s not going to dramatically impede the WDM market," he concludes. q

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