Carriers are running out of reasons to exclude free space optics from their network build-out plans.
A new alliance between AirFiber and Alcatel promises delivery of carrier-grade fat pipes capable of carrying voice, video and data traffic at a fraction of the cost of optical fiber.
FSO is optics without the fiber - a laser and modulator beam the light from rooftop to rooftop across short stretches of a downtown or suburban business park.
AirFiber uses its FSO technology to move traffic at 2.5 gigabits per second. Thats enough for dozens of T1 (1.5-megabit-per-second) lines and some Ethernet connections - with plenty left over for the office next door or for the building across the street.
From AirFibers rooftop equipment, the traffic goes to Alcatels OmniAccess 408 and OmniStack 5025 switches, which send the information to various tenants in the building over a variety of smaller collections.
AirFiber said that this is the first complete FSO system that can provide services such as voice, Ethernet, fast Ethernet and T1 lines to customers in multitenant buildings. If a carrier can provide all of the customers needs in one bundle, the customer is less likely to stray to a competitor for voice or data or another piece of the pie.
The package is also a quick and cost effective way for carriers to distribute high-bandwidth services. "This gives them that ability at a significantly lower cost, without the hassle of leasing or negotiating for unbundled loops." said Brett Helm, CEO of AirFiber.
Last month, FSO got a boost when Qwest Communications International announced it will deploy LightPointes rooftop-to-rooftop optical technology in its worldwide network. It was the first deal between an FSO vendor and a regional Bell.
AirFibers deal with Alcatel, one of the worlds largest switch vendors, is another milestone for FSO, analysts said.
"This gives these guys some validity," said Tony Carmona, senior analyst at IGI Group. "Alcatel is the biggest fixed wireless deployment guys in the world." AirFiber equipment is being deployed by Alua, a competitive carrier in Madrid, Spain, and by KDDI, Japans second-largest carrier.
IGI estimated that the worldwide FSO market will be $3.8 billion by 2006, with U.S. sales about $2.85 billion. "We definitely see a market for it," Carmona said. "Were sticking with our forecast, despite the recent downturn."
The Strategis Group expects FSO revenue to grow 60 percent per year for the next five years, from $250 million this year to $2 billion in 2006. It expects the three largest applications to be enterprises connecting their local area networks together, carriers using it to backhaul their wireless networks and carriers using it for last-mile access.
Once Just Interesting
Until now, FSO has been an intriguing solution for enterprises that couldnt afford to pay or wait for fiber optics, and could put up with losing connections during the worst foggy conditions or snow storms.
Carriers, though, need 99.999 percent - so-called "five nines" - reliability, an assurance that connections arent out more than about five minutes per year.
"Getting four nines usually isnt a problem, but that fifth one is tough to get," Carmona said. "If Alcatel is taking the plunge, and Qwest took the plunge, then possibly that fifth nine is deliverable."
The key to reaching that fifth nine is distance, said Michael Sabo, marketing vice president of AirFiber.
FSO companies like to brag about sending beams of light across a half-mile, a mile or more. But distance always compromises reliability.
AirFiber likes to keep its laser hops to less than 200 meters in foggy cities such as San Diego and San Francisco, maybe double that in more arid metro areas.
Having Alcatel as an original equipment manufacturer partner "is a strong move" for San Diego-based AirFiber, said Rand Haley, an analyst at Strategis. "It shows the industry is maturing. Carriers are more and more seriously looking at the technology."
Haley said that Canon, fSona Communications, LightPointe, Optical Access and Terabeam are among the well-positioned FSO companies.
"Carriers will increasingly see FSO as one of their network tools," Haley said. "Where laying fiber takes too long or is too expensive, its a good complementary technology."
Customers seem happy with the FSO links, IGIs Carmona said. "They say it works just fine in fog and rain," he said. A backup - typically radio microwave - is important, he said. The backup doesnt provide the bandwidth of FSO, but at least the enterprise remains connected for essentials.
FSO in the metro area can complete a Synchronous Optical Network (SONET) or Ethernet ring, something other wireless technologies cant do, Carmona said. "And its cheap and up in a matter of days," he said.
FSO executives say their method can be installed in one-tenth the time and at one-fifth the cost of optic fiber.
AirFibers projections that 200 meters is the ideal reach "seem pretty conservative and on the money," Carmona said. "You can go as far as you want, but if you do, you sacrifice quality."
Carriers that use the AirFiber and Alcatel gear can bring fiber to a building in a ring arrangement and use that as a launching point to reach all the underserved buildings around it, AirFibers Sabo said.
Previously, FSO was offered point-to-point on the physical layer, Sabo said. Now, AirFiber can bring to a building up to four OC-12 (622-Mbps) lines. "Thats fiber-like capacity. You can make as big a metro area network as you want by hopping through these 200[-meter] to 500-meter lengths to the equipment strategically installed on tops of buildings," he said.
AirFibers architecture is based on SONET, optimized for voice, and on Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM), which can carry voice, video and data. Voice and video can be delivered with service guarantees, and whatever bandwidth is left over is allotted to data.
The large regional Bells have said that, for now, theyll stick with SONET ATM infrastructures for robust delivery of voice and video, and only gradually migrate to IP networks.
The FSO option saves a carrier from sinking a lot of money into gear before it knows whether the building will be a big moneymaker, Sabo said. If a carrier brings fiber to a building for an anchor tenant, and that tenant leaves, the carrier may never recoup that big investment. "Carriers in competitive arenas are very conservative. They want to make sure the buildings are going to pay for themselves," he said.