Free space optics vaults into the big leagues this week with Qwest Communications Internationals announcement that it will deploy LightPointes rooftop-to-rooftop optical technology in its worldwide network.
Its the first time a major incumbent carrier has signed a deal with a manufacturer of FSO, a technology that is low-cost and fast to deploy, but can falter in foggy weather over distances of more than a few hundred yards.
"The Qwest deal is very significant," said analyst Eric Rasmussen of TeleChoice. "It certainly does help validate this market. It will help make everybody else realize, I guess this stuff actually can work. If Qwest is doing it, maybe we should, too. "
Qwest is doing it because, compared to ripping up sidewalks to lay optic fiber the last few hundred feet or yards to an enterprises office building, FSO is one-fifth as costly and takes one-tenth the time, said LightPointe CEO John Griffin.
And Qwest chose LightPointe because it sends four separated beams across the rooftops, assuaging the worry that a bird, window washer or snafu would trip the traffic, he said. The four beams and some additional technology let Qwest achieve its 99.999 percent on-time standard over a distance of up to 650 yards, he said.
FSO uses lasers and modulators to send and receive information through the air, connecting buildings via window or rooftop. As long as one building is connected to optic fiber, those buildings with which it communicates can be as well.
Enterprises usually are first to try new technologies, while carriers tend to be more wary. They woo their customers with service-level agreements - and then face demands for refunds or lawsuits if theyre unable to deliver, said senior analyst Bettina Tratz-Ryan of Gartner Dataquest. "Qwest is a carrier that relies on its quality of service portrayals to customers as being very important. Thats why this is very significant."
Qwest underwent a year of trials, mostly in Colorado, to make sure the technology worked in all kinds of weather, Griffin said.
The carrier will use the technology for last-mile access and to link local area networks, Griffin said. It will also use it to link metro networks that dont touch end users.
LightPointe can hook up rooftop systems moving data at 2.5 gigabits per second for about $50,000, said Baksheesh Ghuman, LightPointes chief marketing officer.
The Qwest executive who can speak about the technology was not available last week, the company said.
Two of LightPointes rivals, AirFiber and Terabeam, are more richly funded. Lucent Technologies last year invested $450 million in Terabeam. The same month, Nortel Networks provided most of a $50 million round of funding to AirFiber, bringing total funding to $92.5 million. By contrast, LightPointe got its first significant investment from major gear vendors in July when Corning and Cisco Systems threw in a combined $33 million, bringing total funding to $51.5 million.
According to RHK telecommunications research firm, just 5 percent of U.S. businesses are connected to the Internet by optic fiber, but 75 percent are within one mile of fiber. Carriers are very cautious about where they can extract enough revenue to make the jackhammering of the sidewalks worthwhile.