Lasers in the Mist

Companies say free space optics is best last-mile answer

Jamie Marra, chief information officer at internet ad company Avenue A, was a desperate man last May.

His digital-marketing company was growing, and half the employees were moving into a building 10 blocks away. But the local phone companies told him it would be six months before they could get permits, dig up the sidewalks and link the two downtown Seattle offices with anything faster than a snail-like dial-up connection.

Then he heard about free space optics (FSO), a technology that speeds traffic through the air on laser beams; just lasers — no expensive fiber, no cable, no licenses, no shovels, no jackhammered sidewalks required.

"I had nothing to lose," Marra recalls. He contacted Terabeam, a Seattle start-up that moves fat streams of bandwidth from window to window in urban business districts.

"It was awesome. They told us we could get it in three weeks, and we got it in three weeks. Its working great," he says.

Market research firm RHK estimates just 5 percent of the nations offices are connected to high-speed optics all the way from backbone to building. That leaves tens of thousands of businesspeople like Marra frustrated and looking for quicker, cheaper solutions.

The Strategis Group predicts a loving embrace of FSO. The company forecasts that the FSO market will grow from $100 million last year to $2 billion by 2005. Typically, the technology uses lasers to move data, voice and video from building to building and back to a base station connected to a metro fiber loop. The transport is secure, and the lasers are considered "eye-safe."

The time is right for FSO, because the irrational exuberance for the mere promise of optic fiber is over, says John Griffin, president and CEO of LightPointe, a San Diego start-up that sells FSO equipment to service providers. "Analysts and investors are finally asking the real questions: How many customers do you actually have? How does your revenue compare to each thousand dollars of revenue I invested in the business? " Griffin says. Too often, the answers are discouraging, because the carriers spent billions of dollars to get high-speed optics most of the way to the end user, but cant lock in the customers because of the last-mile bottleneck.

The Last Mile

Last-mile companies that use radio waves and antennas to carry high-speed data can boast ranges of several miles — far greater than the range of FSO. But service provided by radio transmission companies is more expensive and requires spectrum licenses. FSO companies move data only a couple of hundred meters, depending on the weather, but they operate in an area of infrared spectrum that the Federal Communications Commission says it has no plans to regulate or license.

Snow or rain doesnt bother FSO much, because the light can find its way through the raindrops and snowflakes, but fog can stop lasers like a brick wall. The tiny droplets of water in fog act as prisms, spreading out the light; think of a flashlight on a foggy night — the beam grows wide and doesnt travel far.

To deal with fog, LightPointe combines FSO with microwave radio backup to guarantee reliability. In heavy fog, the radio frequency system takes over, provided there isnt heavy rain at the same time.

LightPointe has been in trials with major carriers since last summer. Its enterprise customers are as varied as Barclays Bank and the New York City fire department.

AirFiber, another San Diego company, has four customers that it isnt yet naming. AirFiber sells its equipment to service providers for what it says is one-third to one-tenth the cost of the equipment that would be needed to carry comparable traffic across fiber-optic cable.

Because fog is a formidable foe, AirFiber keeps the distance the light travels short, says Geoff Mordock, the companys manager of public relations. "Two hundred [meters] to 500 meters is ideal," he says. "Others might focus on distance, but we emphasize reliability."

AirFiber makes devices that sit on rooftops and are each about a meter high and a foot in diameter. Inside the cylinder are four turrets that can rotate 360 degrees, finding the best path. In foggy cities such as San Diego and San Francisco, every node or point of contact will have two or more links going into it. "In case one link shuts down, the information is automatically routed to another path — like the Internet," Mordock says.

Landlords could charge AirFiber for the right to put equipment on the roof, but usually dont, because the extra bandwidth adds value to the building and can boost the rents tenants are willing to pay, he says.

Seattle might seem an unlikely place to send light through air, but the citys notorious fog makes it a great test bed for solutions that can cut through the mist. "You dont have to wait long to see if your latest adjustments work or not," says Lou Gellos, a Terabeam spokesman.

Terabeam transmits from 12 hubs in Seattles downtown area, over no greater distance than 300 meters. During heavy fog, a built-in auto-gain feature detects when the signal is weakening and automatically cranks it up. The receivers are like human eyes that can only handle so much light. On foggy days, the sunglasses come off and the pupils widen — or in the case of FSO, the signal gets turned up.

The signal travels from a window in the hub office to an optical transceiver in a window at the customers office. From there, a cable connects to the back of the servers and laptops. Turn it on, and it beams information at up to 1 gigabit of per second — about 640 times the capacity of a T1 (1.5-megabit-per-second) line.

The Four Seasons Olympic Hotel has a 100- Mbps signal from Terabeam, and thats enough for now to keep all of the guests in the 400-room hotel happy.

Terabeam is its own service provider, supplying not just the equipment, but the fiber and the provisioning for the end user. The company has gathered more than $500 million in financing, mostly from Lucent Technologies.

Marra estimates Avenue A is paying 25 percent less for service than it would have paid the phone company and is getting more reliable service and more bandwidth. "Thats a pretty good value for us."

Avenue A is using FSO for intracompany communications and videoconferencing.

Marra says hes conservative and was skeptical about FSO. "Im not looking for whiz-bang stuff. I want something very stable, available and maintainable that can service our users — not the latest and greatest. I dont want our users to be able to see the difficulties behind the scene.

"But if you can get it cheaper and faster and better," Marra says," and youre not being held hostage to wait 180 days for Sprint or MCI [WorldCom] or AT&T to do you a favor and finally get your circuits up . . . why not?"