Fog Clears for Free-Space Optics

Lightpointe gets $6.5 million for sidestepping the main snag of beaming light through air

January 11, 2001

3 Min Read
Fog Clears for Free-Space Optics

Free-space optics –- beaming light pulses through the air –- is moving closer to being a realistic alternative to laying fiber in access networks, judging by yesterday’s announcement of an additional $6.5 million round of funding for one of the players, LightPointe Communications Inc. (see LightPointe Bags Another $6.5M).

The additional funding, in the form of borrowing rather than equity finance, indicates that Lightpointe is onto something, namely a way to sidestep the biggest snag facing free-space optics -- that its reach is drastically shortened in fog.

Lightpointe’s solution is to combine free-space optics with a millimeter or microwave radio backup. When the free-space optics stops working in fog, the microwave kicks in and restores the connection. The microwave won’t work in heavy rain, but the free-space optics will –- and luckily, you don’t get fog and heavy rain at the same time.

Together, according to Lightpointe, the two technologies work together like a tag wrestling team, guaranteeing that connections will stay up for 99.999 percent of the time –- the so-called “five nines” reliability figure often quoted as a target for telecom equipment.

Other companies are known to be working on similar “hybrid optical–wireless systems” but appear to be less advanced. Lightpointe already has 400 installations in operation, according to its founder and CTO, Heinz Willebrand.

Israel’s Jolt Ltd. had just started to work on hybrid optical–wireless when it was taken over by MRV Communications Inc. (Nasdaq: MRVC). Shortly afterwards, MRV also bought Astro Terra Corp., which had developed a hybrid optical-wireless system in partnership with Adaptive Broadband Inc. Jolt and AstroTerra recently merged to become Optical Access Inc. (see Optical Access Bids for $108 Million IPO).

"At one field trial in Denver, companies had to show up with a 622-Gbit/s system or else they didn't get on the roof," says Willebrand. Jolt and PAV Data Systems Ltd., another established optical wireless vendor, weren’t there, while AirFiber Inc., a vendor backed by Nortel Networks Corp. (NYSE/Toronto: NT) was, says Willebrand (see Wireless Wonders).

Like most things to do with free-space optics, Lightpointe is a little unusual. It shipped products before fluffing up its public image, and managed to live off cash flow for the first 18 months of its existence. Willebrand also says he leaps out of bed and screams "networks!" every morning, which sounds rather jolly.

LightPointe is now expanding fast. It’s opened research facilities in Europe and moved into new offices in the U.S (see LightPointe Buys German Optics Plant and LightPointe Moves to Larger Quarters). It’s also installed a gray-haired CEO – John Griffin (see LightPointe Names CEO) - possibly in preparation for an IPO.

The latest round of debt finance comes from Silicon Valley Bank and GATX Ventures Inc.. It comes only a few months after Lightpointe’s first round (see $12M 1st Round for LightPointe) and brings total funding to $18.5 million.

–- Pauline Rigby, senior editor, Light Reading

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