Photuris & SBC: The Inside Story

The mist is lifting on what's happening at SBC Communications Inc. (NYSE: SBC) regarding its RFP for reconfigurable optical add/drop multiplexers (ROADMs) -- and how those developments triggered the effective closure of startup Photuris Inc. at the end of last week (see Photuris Is Finished).

The closure was triggered by "negative news" from one of the three RBOCs that were evaluating Photuris's metro box, according to Ashish Vengsarkar, founder and VP of product management at Photuris. Vengsarkar declined to name the RBOC in question but Light Reading has confirmed that it was SBC.

It's become clear that the negative news for Photuris wasn't accompanied by positive news, a contract win, for another vendor. Instead, Photuris was told that it hadn't made it onto a shortlist of suppliers whose products will now undergo further extensive evaluation by SBC, in a process that might take several more months.

Word has it that three parties have made it onto this shortlist. One of them is a partnership of Tropic Networks Inc. and Alcatel SA (NYSE: ALA; Paris: CGEP:PA) -- a partnership that Tropic declines to confirm or deny.

The other shortlisted bidders are a still a matter of guesswork. It's known that SBC has asked startups in this field to form partnerships with its existing suppliers -- and that was Photuris's undoing. Sources close to Photuris say the company tried to swing a deal with UTStarcom Inc. (Nasdaq: UTSI), but SBC got tired of waiting and, last Thursday, pulled the plug. Within a few hours, staff at Photuris were told the game was over, the money had run out, and they should go home on unpaid leave.

This would be just another case of a startup failing to make a shortlist with an incumbent carrier if it weren't for one thing: SBC had been testing Photuris's product in its Austin, Texas, labs for the best part of a year, in advance of testing any other vendors' products.

"They truly loved it. The RFP was written exactly to match the features and functionality of the Photuris box. I have never seen anything like it. Photuris was able to answer positively to almost every RFP item," says a source, who requested anonymity. This tallies with other reports of a striking resemblance between SBC's RFP and Photuris's product spec.

The contract, said to be worth at least $50 million a year, was Photuris's for the taking, so long as it could find a partner -- and it failed to do so.

UTStarcom declined to comment on whether it had discussed a partnership with Photuris. Vengsarkar says UTStarcom and Siemens Information and Communications Networks Inc. were leading prospective partners, but refuses to discuss any of the RBOC trials Photuris was involved in, citing non-disclosure agreements. SBC also declines to comment.

All the same, Light Reading has obtained a memo that Vengsarkar sent staff yesterday, March 30, which confirms the version of events given by our anonymous sources. Here's what it says:


    This is a tough email to compose.

    Since UTSI is not interested after the SBC decision, my worst-case scenario has unfolded - we are now talking to companies who will be interested in pieces of the business (some are interested only in the Versicolor, others in the Transponders and Software, only a couple who may consider the whole product but may not be able to act fast enough to make a difference). In any case, we don't expect a whole-scale re-hiring of our talent. I am pained by this outcome.

    We have built a great product - I have not had the pleasure of being surrounded by such a talented and dedicated group of individuals ever before. We excelled in technology innovation, product development and hitting the right features & cost-points. Given SBC's feedback that we nailed the RFP on the technical, economic and operational aspects, I feel good that we had something solid to offer customers. The fact that such a comprehensive piece of work is now being broken down into piece-parts breaks my heart (even as I feel proud of our accomplishments). For a while I truly thought that we had planted a Chinese bamboo tree (no growth for four years, then a tiny shoot appears, and in the fifth year it grows eighty feet). Unfortunately for us, we didn't get a fifth year.

    We made mistakes and I take responsibility for them. In hindsight, we could have done a better job on marketing and sales, partnerships and business deals, maybe more push on generating small revenues (a la TAMU), and more intensity in developing higher-up connections in our customer base. These are lessons learned and we will do better the next time around.

    Most importantly, through this note, I want to thank all of you for sticking with this effort until the end - I know you feel proud of what we have built and we should carry this pride to our next steps in our careers.

    If there is anything I can do for you, please let me know. If the opportunity arises, I would love to work with every one of you again.


[As of this writing, Vengsarkar would neither confirm now deny that he had written the message above.]

As for the other bidders shortlisted for the SBC RFP, it's likely that one pair is Lucent Technologies Inc. (NYSE: LU) and Movaz Networks Inc., although some sources say Movaz's product targets edge applications and isn't really comparable with the ones from Photuris and Tropic.

Among SBC's other suppliers, Fujitsu Network Communications Inc. (FNC) has a product, although it's "somewhat weak in ROADM function," according to a consultant familiar with the SBC RFP, who requested anonymity. Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) and Nortel Networks Corp. (NYSE/Toronto: NT) have products on the drawing board. "They're trying to stall the RFP until their slideware becomes real," the consultant adds.

Light Reading's sources say the Photuris equipment was in trials at Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ). Verizon was also insisting that Photuris find a partner, and there was an additional complication -- a long-term contract with Lucent for its EON product.

The same sources say trials with BellSouth Corp. (NYSE: BLS) had started in November or December of last year. Other carriers that have tested Photuris's product include WorldCom Inc. and Time Warner Inc. (NYSE: TWX).

— Peter Heywood, Founding Editor, Light Reading

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tomlight 12/5/2012 | 2:08:30 AM
re: Photuris & SBC: The Inside Story somebody bring photuris back to life!

im curious how they will do with other RBOCs.....
bwana 12/5/2012 | 2:08:29 AM
re: Photuris & SBC: The Inside Story It's not going to happen. Yard sale next -

Anyone need a mirror, amp or a 2.5G/10G transponder?

fancypants 12/5/2012 | 2:08:27 AM
re: Photuris & SBC: The Inside Story obdurate...

I had to look that up.
bwana 12/5/2012 | 2:08:27 AM
re: Photuris & SBC: The Inside Story AV is making new friends I see. I'm shocked that AV's letter made it to the LR pages. Wow!

During my tenure there the lies continued to flow as they are now.

Have some good thoughts for the hard-working and oppressed Photuris people out looking for work in a tough NY/NJ engineering job market.

Many of the obdurate people in AV's inner-circle are getting what they deserve - too bad that other truly good people are suffering also.
solver 12/5/2012 | 2:08:26 AM
re: Photuris & SBC: The Inside Story Could it be Arrogance?
If all the technical accolades are true, it's truly a sad yet puzzling story. How could Photuris have blown all of their repeated chances?
How could they have squandered everything they had?
Why couldn't they strike a deal with someone, anyone?!
I have met a fairly senior person on the Photuris product management team nearly two years ago, after they switched product strategy from long haul to metro.
While I had no doubt about that person's and the company's talent and technical acumen, I could not stand the utter arrogance of that person.

I guess bad-mouthing and belittling every other company's people (that you don't really know), will ultimately come back to haunt you.

I would love to hear more of this story.
bwana 12/5/2012 | 2:08:25 AM
re: Photuris & SBC: The Inside Story We were never long haul. always metro...

PM arrogance - oh yeah! to customers, engineering, potential partners... They knew better and kept chasing 1 major carrier for business with blind, unfounded confidence and the we don't need no stinkin' partners mentality.

Peter Heywood 12/5/2012 | 2:08:23 AM
re: Photuris & SBC: The Inside Story One of the things that puzzles me is why Marconi doesn't appear to be a player on this project.


Because Marconi has been shipping an ROADM - the PMA 32 - for at least 3 years, to BT and some other operators.

I wrote an article last May that compares Tropic and Photuris with Marconi:


Here's an excerpt:

GÇ£WeGÇÖve had the product in PTT networks carrying live traffic for more than two years,GÇ¥ says Abel. However, he concedes that Marconi had some early production problems with the PMA32, which delayed deliveries for a while. This raises the question of whether Tropic and Photuris will encounter similar problems when and if they go into commercial production.


Actually, there's a pretty interesting story surrounding this:

The guts of the PMA32 is a liquid crystal array sort of device from Corning. I think it's the "Purepath Dynamic Spectral Equalizer" that won an award at OFC 2000.

See: http://www.lightreading.com/do... and scroll down

I think that Corning has discontinued production of this device, but my understanding is that Marconi bought a vast number of these arrays at the time it won the BT contract, and many of them have been sitting in a warehouse gathering dust since then.

Marconi bought the arrays for a very high price, when components were in short supply and carriers were expecting to have to expand the capacity of their backbones by a huge amount. It turned out that BT had eyes bigger than its stomach and didn't call forward a lot of the capacity that it had planned for in the monster frame contract it had awarded Marconi.

I've heard it said that this really hurt Marconi, who'd priced the PMA32 so that they almost gave away the chassis and then made a killing on the line cards. As it worked out, a lot of the PMA32s haven't been populated with many cards, and Marconi would have caught a cold on the project, it wasn't for the fact that it went down with double pneumonia from all the other mistakes it made.

John Mayo wrote some articles for the Financial Times pointing to the fact that Marconi didn't just blow a lot of cash on buying Fore Systems etc. It also blew a lot of cash on buying things like this huge stock of Corning arrays.

Of course, this is all water under the bridge now. You'd have thought Marconi would be doing more to capitalize on its ROADM experience, and maybe get some use out of all those arrays that its past shareholders paid for.
Peter Heywood 12/5/2012 | 2:08:23 AM
re: Photuris & SBC: The Inside Story I'm working on something.

If you have information, please get in touch.

[email protected]
veeja1972 12/5/2012 | 2:08:23 AM
re: Photuris & SBC: The Inside Story I saw this arrogance first hand myself...good riddance to these guys...
RGreg 12/5/2012 | 2:08:21 AM
re: Photuris & SBC: The Inside Story I suppose it could be either arrogance, or perhaps it was a misunderstandinhg of the way SBC - or any large bureaucratic organization - works.

Back in my previous startup career we had started a very good relationship with SBC's testing group in Austin. They had heard our presentations, tested our products, and liked what they saw. I made several trips down there to discuss technical details and even worked out some design changes they suggested.

That went on for close to a year, with nothing to show for it in the end. The problem is that regardless of how much the research guys in Austin like things, it has to be approved by people much higher up before signatures are put on paper. And that (sad to say) is dominated by different criteria than if you "nailed the RFP on the technical, economic and operational aspects."

It doesn't surprise me one whit that they died because they had no partner - one of those aforementioned criterion is that the company be a stable supplier for years to come.

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