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June 13, 2001
Last week LightPointe Communications Inc. was granted a patent that could make life difficult for other companies developing optical wireless systems (see LightPointe Wins Patent).
The U.S. patent -- number 6,239,888 -- describes a free-space optical link where light is projected from the end of the fiber into the air using some focusing optics. This means that any signal carried on the fiber is immediately airborne without any electro-optical conversion. LightPointe's patent also specifies an erbium-doped fiber amplifier (EDFA) to boost the power of the signals before sending them through the air.
This basic idea is central to next-generation optical wireless systems integrating seamlessly with fiber optic networks and operating at high speeds, according to Heinz Willebrand, LightPointe's chief technology officer and inventor of the patented device. Most optical wireless systems today operate over a single wavelength in the 850 nanometer region of the spectrum, so they have limited bandwidth, compatibility, and upgradeability, he says.
Willebrand thinks the ramifications of his patent will reverberate through the optical wireless space. "Anybody who wants to build a seamless network will have to talk to us first," he crows.
Although at present LightPointe's patent only covers technology made, sold, or imported into the U.S., the company is planning to extend patent coverage worldwide, says Willebrand.
Two vendors in particular -- U.S.-based Optical Access Inc. and Israeli startup OrAccess Ltd. -- have pinned their hopes to the same star, and could suffer.
"That's devastating news! They beat us to it," said David Medved, Optical Access's CTO, when Light Reading first told him about LightPointe's patent. Medved filed for a broadly similar patent back in September 1998, about five months later than LightPointe.
There's little doubt that OrAccess will also be affected, since its entire branding and marketing strategy is based on the idea of "WDM through the air." The company could not be reached for comment.
What's the scenario for these companies? "That depends on how serious LightPointe is about excluding other companies from the market," says Joseph Gortych, an intellectual property attorney specialising in high technology. "In the worst case, licenses could be extremely expensive or not forthcoming at all. Or LightPointe could chose to set a reasonable license fee that companies won't mind paying."
But after the initial shock has worn off, Optical Access and others will probably go to work to try to break that patent. 24 hours later, Optical Access's Medved appeared more optimistic.
"After a careful review of their patent it seems to me that they missed the main point," he wrote in an email to Light Reading. "All of their claims seem to involve adjustment of EDFA... power levels interactively or auto-alignment of transceivers. It would beinteresting to see Willebrand's file wrapper to see whether heinitially tried to claim the essential idea or was shot down by theExaminer who may have cited prior art against such claims."
As a little aside, the first patent in this field went to Alexander Graham Bell in 1880. He invented the "photo-phone," which sent voice signals through the air using sunlight.
—Pauline Rigby, Senior Editor, Light Reading, http://www.lightreading.com
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