Is Plastic Optical Fiber Pooping Out?

Despite claims for the merits of plastic optical fiber (POF), it won't be showing up in service provider networks anytime soon. This week, one of POF's leading proponents, privately held Boston Optical Inc., seems to have withdrawn its support. And Lucent Technologies Inc. (NYSE: LU) also is hedging its bets that POF will be a telecom solution.

Plastic optical fiber has been explored for years in university labs worldwide as an alternative to glass fiber for a range of uses. Proponents say it's easier and cheaper to install than glass fiber, because where glass fiber has many internal filaments that must be spliced and matched up exactly with special instruments, plastic fiber supposedly can be installed with a knife. And the connectors it requires are said to be cheaper to manufacture.

On the downside, plastic fiber can't go the distance. While sources say it supports 300-Mbit/s to 3-Gbit/s speeds, it can only do so at about 50 to 100 meters before signals peter out, due to attenuation on the fiber. Further, POF can't handle wavelengths required for telecom transmission.

Boston Optical was until recently an aggressive promoter of POF and portrayed itself as a key supplier of POF for a range of applications, including telecom. But that looks to have changed. "Something's up. Word here is that Boston Optical may be shifting their product line to glass," said Tony Carmona, senior analyst at consultancy IGI Group Inc., which sponsored this week's Plastic Optical Fiber 2000 conference in Boston.

"They hyped plastic fiber for a long time, but it turned out they didn't have a product that worked," says Neal Weiss, president of Fiber Optic Center Inc., a distributor in Massachusetts.

Boston Optical's CEO, I. Edward Berman, did not return calls at press time. The product development manager listed on its Website, Andrew Nathanson, has left the company.

Meanwhile, POF figured in other developments this week. Lucent said that a plastic optical fiber cable codesigned by Lucent with Japan's Asahi Glass Company will be included in a major expansion program it plans for specialty fiber in general.(see Lucent to Expand Fiber Plant). But Lucent spokespeople say that product isn't slated to hit the market for 12 to 18 months, and when it does it may not be a telecom seller.

"We are aiming our product first at industrial, medical, and automotive applications," says Lucent's Roger Frizzell. "After that, we'll see what telecom applications materialize."

And Lucent's plastic optical fiber is apparently the closest any supplier has come to providing a POF for telecom apps. This is because Lucent says it's found a way to overcome POF's inherent limitations by treating the plastic fiber with special fluorinated chemicals. Lucent says this decreases its attenuation rates and makes it capable of supporting wavelengths in the 850-to-1300-nanometer range, well within telecom limits.

These advances don't extend the reach of plastic optical fiber, but they conceivably could make it an economical alternative for linking central office gear or tapping residential networks into the fiber backbone.

But Lucent's not waiting around for carriers to rip out glass fiber. And it looks like interest in plastic fiber as a telecom alternative is waning fast. Significant Lucent rivals such as Corning Inc. (NYSE: GLW) haven't announced development of commercial POF products -- and don't plan to do so. "Corning does not manufacture POF, as it does not have applications in telecom," says Corning spokesperson E. Alan Dowdell.

And products that do exist seem to be strangely missing in action. For example, despite announcing a product of its own last year, Asahi Glass reportedly hasn't shipped it. "I have yet to see them complete an order for that product," says Randy Dahl, president of Industrial Fiber Optics, a distributor based in Arizona.

Both Dahl and Weiss say the POF idea in general seems to have fizzled. "I originally got involved [in POF] because I didn't want to wind up being on the sidelines if it took off," Weiss says. "But it hasn't caught on. I don't think it ever will."

-- Mary Jander, senior editor, Light Reading http://www.lightreading.com

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