Agility Launches First Product

Startup Agility Communications Inc. today announced its first product -- a tunable laser called the Agility 3040 (see Agility Launches Tunable Laser).

The laser delivers 4 milliwatts of light power and can be tuned to any of 100 wavelengths over a range of 1525 to 1565 nanometers in a matter of 10 milliseconds.

Tunable lasers like these have a very bright future ahead of them. In the long run, they could turn out to cheaper to make than fixed-wavelength lasers, an existing multibillion dollar market.

They also promise to be a vital ingredient in next-generation metro networks, being reconfigurable on the fly to provide wavelengths wherever and whenever they’re needed (see Tunable Filters Go Solid State and Optical Switching Fabric).

A whole host of vendors are developing tunable lasers to address these potential markets (see Tune In!). And Agility appears to have gone further than most in announcing product specs, unveiling customers, shipping samples, and developing manufacturing facilities.

All the same, Agility isn’t the first vendor to offer a relatively powerful, widely tunable laser, as claimed in its press release, according to Rob Plastow, CTO of what used to be Altitun, a Swedish startup that is now the fiber optics division in the broadband connectivity group of ADC Telecommunications Inc. (Nasdaq: ADCT) (see ADC Scores a Coup on Tunable Lasers).

ADC, via its acquisition of Altitun, has been shipping tunable lasers that match Agility's spec for a year or two, according to Plastow. "I like Agility's business plan because it's exactly the same as ours -- except for being three years behind us," he adds.

Agility touts the fact that it has its own fabrication plant in California and its own packaging plant in Pennsylvania, saying this will enable it to produce large volumes of lasers. “We have a concrete roadmap for producing 1,000 a week by the end of 2001 and 10,000 a week by the end of 2002,” says Arlon Martin, Agility’s vice president of marketing (see Arlon Martin, from Lucent to Agility).

Plastow, however, says ADC has grander plans. He declines to give figures but points to the 35,000-square-foot integrated fabrication and packaging plant that ADC bought from Mitel Corp. (NYSE/Toronto: MLT) to make its tunable lasers. Mitel produced as many as 50,000 chips a week with the plant, he adds. ADC has increased Altitun’s production targets fourfold since the acquisition, Plastow notes.

Still, Plastow acknowledges that ADC has a “significant backlog of orders” for tunable lasers, which implies that Agility won’t have any trouble finding customers.

In fact, Agility already has eight customers, including Mahi Networks Inc., Network Photonics Inc., and Zaffire Inc., according to Martin.

In this respect, Agility is ahead of ADC, which declines to identify customers. Plastow says most of ADC's customers are established telecom equipment vendors rather than startups. However, it’s a fair bet that at least one startup, Cinta Corp., is buying ADC’s tunable lasers, bearing in mind that ADC recently invested in the startup and Cinta is developing a wavelength-selective switch (see Cinta: Paddling Towards an IPO? and ADC's Power Investment Strategy).

Network Photonics, like Cinta, is developing equipment that will enable individual wavelengths to be set up and torn down over metro networks on demand (see Network Photonics Raises $106.5 Million). It’s developing its own switch to handle the wavelengths within the network but is buying tunable lasers to help create the streams of light pulses in the first place.

Network Photonics identified eight vendors with tunable laser developments that might have fitted its requirements, according to Steve Georgis, its president and CEO. Agility met all the requirements, he adds. Most of the other startups couldn’t provide samples for Network Photonics to test. “We believe that [Agility’s] products are the most real,” Georgis notes. He declines to name the other vendors evaluated by Network Photonics.

Agility’s tunable laser is similar to ADC’s in many respects. Both are made from indium phosphide, both have four sections, both are based on distributed Bragg reflector (DBR) technology, and both are tuned by applying different combinations of electrical currents to different sections. ADC's design, however, requires two waveguides, one on top of the other, compared to Agility’s one. Conversely, Agility needs two Bragg gratings and ADC only needs one.

Both companies say they’ve tried making tunable lasers with each other’s technologies and concluded that their way is better. Agility says its laser is simpler to make. ADC says its laser is simpler to control. Both issues influence cost.

Agility also has another trick up its sleeve. It’s planning on integrating its tunable lasers with other devices on the same piece of indium phosphide. One of these devices is likely to be an amplifier, which would enable Agility’s tunable lasers to be used on long-haul networks. Another device is likely to be a modulator, for turning the continuous beam of light coming out of the laser into the string of pulses used for carrying traffic.

The idea of being able to buy a combined tunable laser and amplifier or combined tunable laser and modulator “is of tremendous interest to us,” says Network Photonics’ Georgis. Amplifiers and modulators "are expensive external components,” he adds. Putting them on the same chip would reduce costs considerably.

ADC’s Plastow says his company isn’t thinking of combining other devices with its tunable lasers any time soon. He sees this as a long-term goal, possibly for everybody -- including Agility.

-- Peter Heywood, international editor, Light Reading http://www.lightreading.com

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