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Outlook opportunistic for active optical cables

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Caren B. Les,

Active optical cable revenue is expected to grow significantly over the next five years, according to a report from Information Gatekeepers Inc. (IGI) of Boston, a publisher and consultancy in fiber optics, optical networks, telecommunications and other fields.

Titled Active Optical Cables 2010 Market Report and published in December 2009, it notes that the global recession has had a significant impact on new active optical cable design, which is reflected in the estimated total revenue of $137 million for 2010. A strong increase in sales is expected in 2011-2012 as a result of new designs created in late 2009 and through 2010. Cumulative active optical cable revenue likely will be in excess of $7 billion, with more than $2.4 billion in 2014 alone, according to the company.

“The inability of copper cables to keep up with higher I/O [input/output] data rates and user desire to carry lighter, more flexible cables are the main drivers for the active optical cables market,” said Tom Rossi, author of the report. “The market needs to drive toward lower costs and broader adoption rates,” he added.

Rossi said that among the main applications for active optical cables are high-performance computers that will require cables with lane rates above 10 Gb/s, and with 12 channels rather than the four typically in use today. Thinner, lighter and more flexible cables also will be in demand for high-definition television, personal computers, consumer electronics and digital signal, he added.

Active optical cables carry digital I/O over optical fiber, using electrical-to-optical conversion inside the cable/harness connector itself.

According to the report, the number of active optical cables is projected to exceed 1.2 million units in 2010 and to grow to more than 48 million units by 2014. Heavier use of USB and high-definition multimedia interface (HDMI) active optical cables is predicted.

The report addresses new markets and technologies, including CXP, a 12-channel connector, and SAS, serial attached SCSI (small computer system interface), a common data storage transfer protocol. Further information about the report can be found at

Active optical vs. copper cables

“In the past year, I/O cable bandwidth has increased at the expense of copper cable length restriction, with reductions of maximum practical length for the latest forms of USB, HDMI and DisplayPort,” according to the company. High-performance computer clients also are reporting a preference for optical InfiniBand cables above the 5- to 7-m length.

Active optical cables are likely to be used in applications instead of the thicker, bulkier copper cables now required to address bandwidth and power delivery issues.

“Copper cables cannot carry faster I/O rates without increasing their wire gauge/diameters. At some point, fatter copper wires cannot be used with the standard interface connectors only. The only solution is to reduce the wire length so the thinner copper cable can be made to work,” Rossi said.

Light Peak, an optical technology initiative from Intel Corp. that is supported by Sony Corp., has technical elements heavily used by active optical cables. IGI suggests that, if Light Peak reaches volume markets, it could have a great impact on overall active optical cable cost structures. “Any active optical cable initiative from Intel Corp. tends to create a lot of interest across the computer industry, and, as such, merits watching,” Rossi said.

Light Peak is described by Intel as a high-speed optical cable technology designed to connect electronic devices to each other. The company says that it delivers high bandwidth starting at 10 Gb/s and has the potential to scale to 100 Gb/s over the next decade.

Later growth predicted

“Active optical cables are poised to become a disruptive force within the communications market; technical innovations from this segment are promising, though applications in consumer electronics are not predicted until 2013,” according to The Active Optical Cable Market Analysis and Forecast Report published in December 2009 by LightCounting Inc., an optoelectronics transceiver market research firm based in Eugene, Ore.

“Active optical cables will be very popular in the InfiniBand high-performance computing market but will not likely spread to other protocols until much later in 2012 and beyond,” said Brad Smith, senior vice president and industry analyst at LightCounting.

“The consumer optical cable market – HDMI, USB, Light Peak, etcetera – is largely a 2012-2014 market for any significant volume, as it is well served by copper solutions today, and the prices are very low. Also, there just isn’t the need in the consumer space with the supporting devices for either the very high data rates – 10 gigabits per second – or the long reaches where the advantages of optical technology come into play,” he added.

“Fueled mainly by the transition of cabling from copper to high-speed optical in high-performance computers, and seeking lower connectivity costs and power consumption, the market is expected to grow to 580,000 units and $192 million by 2013 and is expected to begin spreading to other communications protocols and market segments,” according to the LightCounting report. The document notes that corporate data centers, undergoing upgrades and increasing data rates, are likely to drive the market, and if Intel is successful in bringing low-cost active optical cables to the consumer market, that market also will become a very interesting and active business segment.

Differences of opinion

Smith takes issue with the IGI report. “I have talked with most active optical cable manufacturers, and they are flat-out upset with the hype from the Tom Rossi IGI report. Rossi talks for a $1.2 million and near $1 billion market for active optical cables, mainly in the Light Peak, optical HDMI space. Yet when I was at CES [Consumer Electronics Show], there was not a single product – either TV or cable – on display. Every cable company I talked to never [hears] of optical,” Smith said.

“We had a fairly strong reaction to our report last year, even more amazing considering it was our initial service launch during the worst worldwide recession in more than 70 years,” Rossi said. “In the past 60 days, we have held two ‘webinars’ – over 130 attendees combined – with lots of favorable comments received during and after the webinars. Several large companies have mentioned building strong cases internally for moving ahead with optical cables, thanks to the groundbreaking research and analysis we have brought to bear.”

Photonics Spectra
Mar 2010
active optical cablesActive Optical Cables 2010 Market ReportbandwidthBrad SmithBusinessCaren B. LesCommunicationsconsumer electronicsConsumer Electronics Showcopper cablesCXPdata storagedigital signageDisplayPortfiber opticshigh definition multimedia interface (HDMI)InfiniBandInformation Gatekeepers (IGI)Intel Corp.Light Peaklight speedLightCounting Inc.marketopticsPCpersonal computersrevenueSAS serial attached SCSI (small computer system interfacetelevisionThe Active Optical Cable Market Analysis and Forecast ReportTom RossiTVUSB

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