Giga-PON Ships Quietly

Flexlight says its gigabit PON is trialing internationally: a turning point? or just another signpost?

February 10, 2003

4 Min Read
Giga-PON Ships Quietly

Looking for some bigger and better PON? FlexLight Networks says it's shipping the first product that meets early specs for passive optical networks (PONs) operating at greater-than-gigabit speeds.

Like other PONs, FlexLight's product, dubbed Optimate, uses passive splitters to share optical bandwidth among multiple users, saving the cost of laying individual fiber links. But unlike others, FlexLight's gear doesn't stop at a maximum of 622 Mbit/s. Instead, the vendor claims Optimate delivers speeds up to 2.5 Gbit/s downstream and up to 1.25 Gbit/s upstream at a range of at least 20 km between switch and user.

FlexLight claims Optimate carries a range of traffic types -- including Ethernet and Ethernet VLANs, TDM, E1, and T1 -- using a breed of the Generic Framing Protocol (GFP) of Sonet fame. While specs have yet to be fully approved, proponents say they're pretty much a done deal at the International Telecommunication Union, Standardization Sector (ITU-T), as seen by a recent announcement that initial standards are complete (see ITU Adopts G-PON Standard).

Sounds impressive. But the impact of the announcement is tough to gauge. For one thing, it isn’t all that new. FlexLight first announced the product in June 2002 (see {doclnik 16868)}, following it with announcements of interoperability with other gear (see FlexLight, Sorrento Interoperate and Atrica Teams With FlexLight), which haven't amounted to any further news.

According to CEO Gary Lee, the news here is that the product’s shipping in bulk, not just available in limited edition. But it's still unclear to what extent the market FlexLight's addressing -- the business services market -- has taken to PONs. What's more, it's not clear whether the GPON (gigabit PON) technology FlexLight's banking on will be the main choice once a market's established.

Let's take it from the top. So far, the handful of vendors who chose to address the business PON market haven't produced any GPONs like FlexLight's. Alcatel SA (NYSE: ALA; Paris: CGEP:PA), Quantum Bridge Communications Inc., Terawave Communications, and others (see Optical Access) have focused mainly on fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) solutions, often for rural telecoms. None of them has announced a GPON to date.

"The GPONrate is not required, and too expensive at this time," writes Jeff Gwynne, VP of marketing at Quantum Bridge, in an email today. "As time marchesforward, the world may move to higher PON rates (i.e., beyond 622 Mbps). Ifthis happens, an industry will form around GPON."

A market leader in FTTH PONs, Optical Solutions Inc., says gigabit rates aren't needed yet. "We can do everything for small to medium-sized businesses, including four phone lines, 100-BaseT, and analog or switched video," says Darryl Ponder, CEO of Optical Solutions. He doesn't see the need for speeds above 327 Mbit/s.

At least one other player says the business use for PONs is increasing, but insists the technology of choice is Ethernet, not the scheme adopted by the GPON proponents, which grew out of the ATM-based approach favored by early PON developers.

Joe DeCarolis, CTO of Alloptic Inc., says there's been a definite increase in deployments of his company's Ethernet-based products, which offer rates up to 1 Gbit/s symmetrically (both upstream and down). He says Ethernet's cheaper and easier for carriers to deploy. Further, he sees no demand building for more bandwidth for another 18 months, when Alloptic and others, he says, will be looking at jumps to 10 Gbit/s.

It looks as if FlexLight's ultimate success rests on how well carriers embrace GPON versus EPON (Ethernet PONs) and for what kind of applications.

Lee of FlexLight is hopeful. He says his GPON performs better than ATM-based PONs, which big carriers worldwide embraced because they fit ITU specs. He's also hopeful that U.S. RBOCs are renewing their interest in PON. Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) should have an RFP out this quarter, he says, and others have ongoing projects.

But without customer testimonials, it's going to be difficult to determine whether FlexLight's on the brink of big things -- or just longingly eyeing the horizon for a ship that never seems to arrive.

— Mary Jander, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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