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September 12, 2002
System vendor or component supplier? That's the question surrounding All Optical Networks Inc. (AON) as it prepares to ship its first product. And how the company ultimately answers that question will decide its future.
AON's unusual MetroScout wavelength multiplexer was introduced last year (see AON Unveils Strange Wavelength Mux). It's set to ship in November, reportedly to several interested incumbent carriers seeking an easy way to squeeze more capacity out of existing Sonet networks. But AON's long-term strategy could take it down another road.
Specifically, AON plans to take the internal components of the MetroScout, pound them onto a single substrate, and create an integrated optical component that functions like an ASIC (application specific integrated circuit). What it's going to do with that part, however, remains a mystery -- perhaps even to AON itself.
To understand the possibilities calls for a review of AON's present offerings. Its MetroScout product takes up to four incoming optical channels and squishes them into one fiber at 1310 nanometers, without any optical-to-electrical signal conversion.
AON's aiming the MetroScout at a range of trendy applications. It can maximize existing Sonet links by enabling more devices to use a single ring, AON says. Since it automatically adjusts its wavelength muxing capability to fit a range of incoming data rates, it can eliminate a lot of the tweaking and extra hardware now required to adjust DWDM and CWDM gear when Sonet rings are upgraded from one speed to another.
AON plans to unfurl the MetroScout, then focus on its optical ASIC.
The ASIC will give AON several benefits over the discrete parts it now uses in the MetroScout. For one thing, it will use power more efficiently. For another, it will be capable of tackling a range of tasks. It won't be limited to 1310nm input, as the MetroScout currently is. AON will be able to deploy it with 1550nm lasers and possibly use it as the basis for switching gear.
What this plan may do to AON's business model is tough to say. Will it, for example, be able to sell its optical ASIC to other suppliers while continuing to peddle its own system as well?
The company's not speculating publicly. On the one hand, VP of marketing Marc Caiola talks about the possibility of using the new IC to address "vertical markets." But Ralph Bennett, AON's CEO and a former CEO and founder of PMC-Sierra Inc. (Nasdaq: PMCS), says, "At this point in time, we have no plans to be an OEM." Bennett's not giving away any timetables, and he seems content to leave AON's future business model as blurry as possible.
Any scenario will be a challenge to implement. Startups involved in making integrated photonic components are notorious for becoming cash incinerators. So far, AON's managed to keep its personnel costs relatively static. Bennett denies having had any layoffs, but he says the company has "changed personnel" as needed, based on what it required at each juncture of product development. Now the company has about 40 employees.
Like most startups, AON's also on what seems to be a continuous fundraising campaign. Having raised $6 million in Series A funding in May 2002, the startup plans to close its Series B round within a couple of months. AON's lips are sealed as to the size and the companies involved.
Competition also looms. As a system vendor in its initial rollout, AON faces CWDM and even DWDM players -- such as Advanced Fibre Communications Inc. (AFC) (Nasdaq: AFCI), LuxN Inc., and Transmode Systems AB -- that are also trying to stake a claim in metro access (see AFC Stokes Up Startups). It remains to be seen how quickly carriers will embrace AON's all-optical solution compared with existing CWDM gear, despite AON's claims of greater capacity for the same cost as CWDM.
When it comes to integrated photonic components, there are other companies at work there, too. AON mentions one, Infinera, which appears to be working in a similar area when it comes to integrated components (see More on Infinera (née Zepton)). Meantime, there's no shortage of vendors emerging with their own all-optical access techniques -- Oki Electric Industry Co. Ltd., for example (see Oki Touts New Access Tech).
Ultimately, AON will have some tough choices to make as it attempts to address a constrained market, while trying to construct the best possible plan for its future.
— Mary Jander, Senior Editor, Light Reading
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