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Free-Space Market Broadens

Photonics Spectra
Sep 1999
Robert C. Pini

Lucent Technologies has combined free-space optical communications with dense wavelength division multiplexing technology in a new, high bandwidth, point-to-point commercial system. Intended to bypass the local loop bottleneck, the WaveStar OpticAir system sends voice, data and video signals through the air using laser transmitters and optical receivers.

Lucent expects the system, which promises speeds of 2.5 Gb/s by next March and 10 Gb/s by next August, to sell to service providers and businesses that shuttle data among high-rise office buildings. Loren Talley, a company spokesman, declined to give a price tag for the system but compared it to equipment costs for a similar-capacity fiber optic system. Lucent hopes customers will buy because the system can be set up quickly without construction costs.

Increasing interest

Several companies offer similar technology or are preparing systems for commercial release. "The need for these high speeds is relatively recent," said Eric Korevaar, president of AstroTerra in San Diego, which sells the systems. He said that the global market has been small, but he expects that Lucent's entry will stir interest and could prompt other equipment manufacturers to introduce their own systems.

Alcatel USA in Richardson, Texas, sniffed at Lucent's announcement. Tim Krause, a senior director for product line management, said, "We don't see a large application for it," and questioned the technology's reliability in bad weather.

A spokesman for Motorola Inc. in Schaumburg, Ill., refused to comment on the company's plans, saying only that it was "aware of the technology's capabilities and potential applications."

Mat Steinberg, director of RHK Inc., a market survey firm in South San Francisco, forecast an annual market of $300 million for interoffice metro and enterprise free-space systems. He said market growth among buyers using the system for data storage could reach "50 percent year over year."

Data storage is the chief application now, said Tom Valovic, research manager at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass., which tracks telecommunications markets. Valovic estimated that the market for high-bandwidth connection of local area computer networks is "a few years away. Most users only require T-1 and T-3 ranges."

"I would find it surprising if service providers were to latch onto this," Valovic said, also citing reliability issues. "Competitive local exchange carriers might choose the application." But he doubted the former Bell carriers would be interested. "It doesn't seem in keeping with the way they employ resources."

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