We recently asked a random sample of Lightwave readers to tell us which markets they believe offer the most opportunity for optical vendors in the next two years. Not surprisingly, metro networks topped the list, with access networks a strong second. However, I admit to raising an eyebrow when I learned that LANs came in third, with a significant 40% of respondents suggesting that the premises held promise for optical technology.
One reason this result appeared so unusual is that I had just returned from the Embedded Systems Conference in San Francisco, where many of the new-product announcements leveraged 802.11 wireless LAN technology. The case for wireless LANs certainly is compelling; the ability to have an infinitely reconfigurable network—whereby users can remain "connected" regardless of where in the building they may take their laptops or PDAs—seems to me an irresistible lure. Why wouldn't you want to evolve your network in this direction?
One answer to this question, as any veteran of the fiber-to-the-desktop battle will tell you, is that it is very difficult to get network managers to try a new technology without an extraordinarily compelling catalyst. Fiber-to-the-desk remains a niche technology for this reason, despite the best efforts of the TIA's Fiber Optic LAN Section to disseminate their business case analyses that show optical LANs are cost-competitive with twisted-pair approaches.
Still, when network managers finally do decide to move to a new technology, either because their company is adding office space or their existing copper network has run out of gas, how do optical LAN equipment vendors break beyond the riser and into the cubicles, particularly with the wireless LAN alternative gaining maturity?
First, the economics of optics must continue to improve. The TIA continues to work in this direction, as evidenced by the recent addendum to the TIA/EIA-785 Short Wavelength Fast Ethernet Standard. The addendum removed certain limitations on transceiver designs, opening the door to the use of more economical devices.
Second, the optical vendors must discover more added value for a fiber-optic approach to LANs. Security and EMI immunity remain important only to a limited number of applications. The flexibility and ease of use of wireless LANs cannot be offset merely by the increased bandwidth carry capacity that fiber brings. The move toward power over Ethernet for wireless equipment will further facilitate the use of such technology. While optical networks certainly could take advantage of power over Ethernet, this ability would only improve its chances in applications where mobility wasn't desired. And while many office workers sit in front of workstations they have no intention of moving, if enough of their fellow users have a requirement for portable access, why not just give everyone their own tiny antenna?
In short, if the increasing bandwidth capacity of twisted-pair wasn't worrisome enough, the advent of wireless LANs further pressures optical LAN proponents to improve economics and features. Optical technology can provide many benefits to premises networks. But the time to develop compelling business cases gets ever shorter.
Stephen M. Hardy
and Associate Publisher