Optical components

Bandwidth9 Cuddles Up With Corning

BALTIMORE – NFOEC – Evidence suggesting that 1550-nanometer tunable VCSELs (vertical cavity surface emitting lasers) are close to becoming serious commercial products emerged earlier this week when Bandwidth9 Inc. announced that it was collaborating with Corning Inc. (NYSE: GLW) (see Bandwidth9 Collaborates with Corning).

Under the agreement, Bandwidth9 and Corning are working together to optimize the performance of Bandwidth9’s 1550nm lasers for use with the special fiber that Corning has developed for metro networks, called MetroCor.

The laser and fiber have characteristics that work well together to prolong the distance that light signals can travel without needing amplification or regeneration, according to David Culverhouse, manager of market development for Corning’s optical fiber division dealing with engineering for metro applications. The laser has positive chirp and the fiber has negative dispersion characteristics, which tend to balance each other out, he says.

The two companies are undertaking tests to establish the likely maximum reach of the laser-and-fiber combination. Distances of more than 100 kilometers have already been achieved, according to Tim Richardson, Bandwidth9’s executive VP of business development. The companies plan to announce results when they’ve collected more performance data.

This agreement is a big deal for Bandwidth9 on a couple of counts.

First, it promises to give Bandwidth9 the opportunity to piggyback Corning’s sales of its MetroCor fiber, which are likely to be substantial. Having a laser that’s effectively been endorsed by Corning for use with MetroCor could give Bandwidth9 an inside track in selling its components to metro equipment vendors.

Culverhouse stops short of actually endorsing Bandwidth9's laser but says the collaborative project indicates Corning's belief that 1550nm VCSELs could be close to becoming commercially viable and could offer “a valuable, cost-effective contribution to metro networks.” He goes on to say: "We'll have to wait and see whether they gain any traction."

Second, the deal with Corning helps Bandwidth9 counter charges from one of its competitors – Larry Coldren, to wit, chairman and CTO of Agility Communications Inc. – that 1550nm VCSEL technology is nowhere near ready for commercial deployment.

Coldren has done a lot of research into VCSELs at the Optoelectronics Technology Center of the University of California Santa Barbara, and maintains the view that 1550nm VCSELs developments won’t be ready for commercial use for another five years. Bandwidth9 is misleading people by pretending it has commercial products, he told Light Reading earlier this week.

Bandwidth9’s Richardson says he’s “disappointed” in Coldren’s comments, which he says reflect the fact that Bandwidth9 is threatening to steal a significant portion of Agility’s potential market. Agility makes a side-emitting tunable laser, a type of distributed Bragg reflector (see Tune In!) that has a higher power output than Bandwidth9’s laser but is likely to be more expensive to make and requires a separate modulator. (Bandwidth9's laser is directly modulated).

The background of this little tiff is that VCSELs blew away side-emitting devices in the 850nm laser market a few years ago because they are intrinsically inexpensive to manufacture (see Laser Blazers). Coldren and others have tried to repeat the trick for the 1310- and 1550-nanometer laser market and have concluded that it’s too difficult to make these wavelength VCSELs in large volumes.

Now it’s beginning to look as though Bandwidth9 and others have succeeded in addressing these challenges. In Bandwidth9’s case, the evidence of this comes not only from its deal with Corning but also from a joint demonstration with Nortel Networks Corp. (NYSE/Toronto: NT) at the Supercomm show last month (see Bandwidth9 Scores a Coup).

As noted, other folk are developing 1550nm tunable VCSELs, but they’re targeting longer-distance transmissions with more expensive, higher-power pumped lasers. Coretek, the startup acquired by Nortel, has such a device (see Nortel Gambles $1.43 Billion On Tunable Lasers).

Bandwidth9’s prices for its much lower power 1550nm tunable VCSEL are likely to give Agility a headache, to judge from comments made by Mark Thomas, director of optical networking for Mahi Networks Inc., a stealth-mode startup (see Mahi's Got a Big Fish to Fry). Speaking on a panel organized by Bandwidth9 this morning he said: “Bandwidth9 certainly has a story that’s compelling on the cost side.”

Agility might also face price pressure from Blue Sky Research, a startup developing a low-cost external cavity laser (see Blue Sky Scores Four in a Row). As it happens, Blue Sky told Light Reading today that its laser would deliver 20mw of power and would cost half the price of Agility’s equivalent laser. Right now, however, it's early days; Blue Sky's device is only at the prototype stage.

— Peter Heywood, Founding Editor, Light Reading

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