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Corning's Mixed Message

Light Reading
News Analysis
Light Reading
8/31/2000

DENVER -- Corning Inc. (NYSE: GLW) seems to be hedging its bets on advanced switching components by deepening its commitments to two seemingly competing technologies.

Here at the National Fiber Optic Engineers Conference (NFOEC), Corning announced Tuesday that it plans a six-fold, $20 million expansion of manufacturing capacity for liquid-crystal components that manipulate light in optical amplifiers and dense wavelength-division multiplexing (DWDM) systems. Specifically, Corning plans to add onto its Garden Grove, Calif., manufacturing plant, which is part of Corning's Advanced Photonic Technologies facility. This plant already is producing two product lines based on liquid-crystal technology -- a Wavelength Selective Switch that provides add/drop capabilities for up to 80 DWDM channels; and the Dynamic Spectral Equalizer, which attenuates power in multichannel DWDM gear. In addition, Corning will build a new plant nearby, although it won't yet say exactly where. The entire expansion is slated for completion by the middle of 2001.

Simultaneously, Corning launched two demonstrations of the micro-electro-mechanical system (MEMS) being used in optical switches.

What gives? Liquid-crystal switching is generally considered to be an alternative to MEMS (in which tiny tilting mirrors manipulate light in optical networks). Since they don't rely on moving parts, liquid-crystal switch components are thought to be less liable than MEMS to wear out over time, even though they can't seem to switch light as quickly (see Chorum Makes A (Small) Splash In Optical Switches).

There's no contradiction in its approach, Corning says. It plans to use MEMS to create optical switch fabrics within cross-connects and other switching systems in service provider networks. Liquid-crystal technology will be deployed strictly to route light from one DWDM channel to another within switch fabrics.

Sounds fine, but Corning isn't yet taking its strategy to the next level. "The switching modules don't work together," says a spokeperson. "All we are showing is one technique being used for switching, another for wavelength selection." That's it. There's no strategy for combining the two in any subsystems or components.

Instead, Corning seems to be hedging its bets by throwing its support behind both techniques in anticipation of any market trends. "We've found liquid-crystal technology to be the best way to manage wavelengths at this point in time," says Doug Eccleston, business manager for Corning's Wavelength Management Products Group. "That doesn't mean we won't use MEMS down the road in similar fashion."

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

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