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Laser Suppliers Getting in Tune

Light Reading
News Analysis
Light Reading
2/27/2001

A bunch of component manufacturers are hoping to use the upcoming Optical Fiber Communications (OFC) conference to thrash out a multisourcing agreement for widely tunable lasers.

The idea is to make it easier for system vendors to move from one laser supplier to another by agreeing on common characteristics such as the physical size of the laser and the number of pins used for electrical connections. The move could be good for everyone, because agreements like these often accelerate acceptance of new technologies at the same time as driving down prices.

The effort is being led by Agility Communications Inc., Iolon Inc., and New Focus Inc. (Nasdaq: NUFO), all of which are developing widely tunable lasers (see Corning Backs Laser Startup, New Focus, New Laser and Agility Launches First Product).

It’s also got the support, in principle, of ADC Telecommunications Inc. (Nasdaq: ADCT), currently the most established supplier in this field, thanks to its acquisition of Altitun, a Swedish startup.

Agility, Iolon, and New Focus have already held discussions with the Optical Internetworking Forum (OIF) about their proposals, according to Cindana A. Turkatte, Iolon’s VP of marketing. "We hope to pull together an MSA [multi-source agreement] group of companies at OFC so a truly interactive discussion can take place," she says.

The upshot is likely to be an agreement among companies rather than an actual standard, according to Rob Plastow, CTO of the fiber optics division in the broadband connectivity group of ADC. He says it's likely to follow the example of a 1998 multisource agreement covering 2.5-Gbit/s transmitters, among Alcatel SA (NYSE: ALA; Paris: CGEP:PA), Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERICY), Lucent Technologies Inc. (NYSE: LU), Mitsubishi Electric Corp., and Sumitomo Corp. (see http://www.lucent.com/micro/NEWS/PRESS1999/092799b.html for more details).

The agreement covering tunable lasers is likely to cover the size and shape of the module, the number of pins used for electrical connections, and the format of control signals, according to Plastow. It wouldn’t cover the technology used in the laser itself, which is the main basis on which vendors compete.

Such an agreement would be enormously helpful to system vendors, according to Steve Georgis, president and CEO of Network Photonics Inc., a startup developing next-generation metro equipment. Without an agreement, Network Photonics would have to develop different circuit boards to use with lasers from different suppliers -- a situation that not only adds costs but also leads to complications throughout the supply chain. With an agreement the differences can be limited to software changes, Georgis says.

Network Photonics has been advising Agility on its proposals for the multisource agreement, as part of a strategic partnership that the two companies announced today (see Agility Partners With Network Photonics).

One sticking point in negotiating the multisourcing agreement is likely to be the number of pins. ADC and Agility want 40 pins, sufficient to support the parallel interfaces that are likely to be needed in lasers with fast switching speeds, so they can be used for packet switching applications, according to Plastow. Iolon and New Focus have intrinsically slower lasers, so they’d be happy with a serial interface requiring fewer pins. The solution may be two specs.

-- Peter Heywood, international editor, Light Reading http://www.lightreading.com

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