Spinning & Grinning at OFC/NFOEC
The White House, a campy Italian restaurant in Anaheim, likes to present meals accompanied by large wafer-built replicas of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Or giant butterflies. Or top hats. By the end of a marathon Light Reading staff dinner, these Pisa towers and other adorning crackers were Roman ruins – shattered to pieces by your friendly journalistic Visigoths.
In short: We stuffed our faces, and then destroyed stuff. Sounds a bit like how the optical market unfolded from 2000-2004, doesn’t it?
Yes, we're all familiar with the optical market's implosion. But now comes the long slog back. For all the grousing in some quarters about OFC/NFOEC and the optical market, there was actually some pretty interesting stuff going on. Hey, even a tunable laser company got funding (see Agility Snares Another $15M).
Yes, pricing pressure, under-utilization of manufacturing capacity, and competition from Asia still rule the day in the components market (see Components Competition Is Killing). But for every small component company that seems doomed, there are also pockets of strength in the market and opportunities for companies to take leadership positions, showing cause for optimism.
Here are some highlights:
Service Providers Are Active Again
One of the hallmarks of the last couple of OFC and NFOEC shows (they’ve now been combined) was the lack of interest and activity on the part of the largest service providers, which were preoccupied with getting their financial houses in order.
This year was different. OFC/NFOEC was actually crawling with quite a bit of service provider traffic, and these guys – the kings of the jungle – seemed to be taking a more active role than they did in 2003 or 2004. “We’ve had many major service providers visit our booth and look at our product,” says Irfan Ali, president and CEO of Lambda Optical Systems Corp. "It's been a really good show.
Others concur. Benoit Fleury, vice president for protocol-layer product management with EXFO Electro-Optical Engineering Inc. (Nasdaq: EXFO; Toronto: EXF), noted that service providers have significantly increased their activity in the testing market, which has to be a good sign. “We are seeing a lot of momentum in the Gigabit Ethernet market, which is suddenly huge now,” he notes. “Our carrier customers are screaming for it.”
Fleury says the other hot market is tools for next-generation Sonet analysis, specifically for those testing new Sonet networks using technologies such as General Framing Procedure, VCAT, and LCAS. “That’s really starting to take off with carriers lately,” he says. Going forward, Fleury expects video networks and VOIP to provide new growth for the testing market.
On the floor and in the back-room discussions, service providers were indeed there pontificating about new technologies, especially Ethernet, SIP, and FTTP. Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) executives were particular visible, prowling the floor and the various panels in search of new IP and access technologies. Brian Whitton, executive director of access technologies with Verizon, says that, not only is Verizon going forward with its FTTP plans, but it also plans to move aggressively to an IP-based infrastructure in the access network, driven by SIP.
”I have an assigned priority to get to a SIP interface at the [customer premises] by the end of the year,” said Whitton during a panel on FTTP technology.
Whitton says this will result in Verizon's new IP-based architecture bypassing legacy circuit switches in the central offices, using softswitches. Yes, it's obvious the world's moving to IP-based communications. But Whitton left the impression that it's happening sooner rather than later.
Interestingly, Verizon's video service won't be hopping on the IP bandwagon. "We have never said we're going to a pure IP-based solution down the road," a Verizon spokesperson told Light Reading in January.
Growth Is Happening After the hysterical the “sky is falling” days of 2001/2002 (after all, it was), it’s nice to see there are actually quite a few optical sectors showing growth. These include markets for small wavelength management devices like ROADMs, next-generation transponders for the Ethernet market, Ethernet switching, and metro optical networking systems.
Take Lucent Technologies Inc. (NYSE: LU). Lucent’s growth overall is flat, but that's being weighed down by its legacy voice switching business.
There is growth bubbling up in its optical division, according to Ken Wirth, president and general manager of Lucent’s Multimedia Network Solutions business. Wirth observes that Lucent’s optical business grew in 2004, and he expects things to get better in 2005. He says Lucent's engaged in 31 customer trials.
Indeed, the numbers bear this out. According to Lucent’s published 2004 results, fiscal first-quarter 2005 optical revenues were $203 million, an increase of of 23 percent over fourth-quarter 2004’s revenues of $166 million. Yes – there is growth in the optical market.
Wirth says the growth is coming primarily in the metro networking market, where carriers are interested in using next-generation Sonet and MSPP gear to deploy Ethernet services. This new push into Ethernet services was highlighted by CEO Pat Russo at the CeBIT tradeshow in Germany, where Lucent announced a number of new Ethernet services deals (see Lucent Pushing Services).
Wirth, by the way, has moved over to take charge of Lucent’s data-networking gear – including CBX switching products – which has been quietly merged with optical in Lucent’s INS division.
Finding new markets to replace the dying ones: This was a common theme. Similar things are happening at JDS Uniphase Corp. (Nasdaq: JDSU; Toronto: JDU), which is in the midst of a massive shift of its manufacturing to Asia that is expected to be completed in 2005.
Enzo Signore, director of marketing at JDSU, points out that JDSU’s communications revenue grew 25 percent in 2004. He says JDSU sees significant growth in several markets, including the market for flexible wavelength routing devices that JDSU refers to as wavelength managers. These include JDSU’s ROADMs, Multi-port Wavelength Switch (MWS), and WaveBlocker – a market he contends is growing at about 50 percent per year.
JDSU is hoping to take advantage of the move by large systems vendors to outsource as much as their development as possible, building their systems with ready-made, modular optical subsystems built by suppliers like JDSU.
JDSU has indeed become a big player in the ROADM market, where it supplies ROADM subsystems to a number of large incumbents. In its booth, it was demonstrating its ROADM technology, in use by customers including Lucent, Ciena Corp. (Nasdaq: CIEN), Fujitsu Network Communications Inc. (FNC), Siemens Communications Group, and Tellabs Inc. (Nasdaq: TLAB; Frankfurt: BTLA). Sources say that JDSU is also working with Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), but Cisco has not named its ROADM supplier.
Given the fact that there were at least 14 different panels on FTTP at OFC – all of which seemed to include the same people from NTT Communications Corp. and Verizon – it’s clear that the fiber-to-the-whatever market is considered important by many (see FTTP Gets Plenty of Airtime ).
Several people said that the Verizon and SBC Communications Inc. (NYSE: SBC) fiber access buildouts are going according to plan.
”It’s been pretty aggressive overall,” said Michael Day, chief technical officer at ADC Telecommunications Inc. (Nasdaq: ADCT).
On one of those many FTTP panels, Hiro-Michi Shinohara, director of network access systems laboratories with NTT, said that NTT is pushing forward aggressively on the FTTP front: “Even though FTTP is not very profitable now, we need to gain market share."
Likewise, Verizon’s Whitton claimed his incumbent is on track to achieve its goals of passing a total of 3 million homes with fiber access in 2005. “We’re passing 45,000 homes per week,” he said.
Even if large incumbents such as Verizon and SBC seem sincere about their FTTP efforts, there were some doubts as to whether that will translate into profits for suppliers.
JDSU’s Singore says that, right now, JDSU isn’t interested in supplying that market and is focusing instead on metro-area networking. “In access, there is one buyer and hundreds of suppliers; there’s lots of low-cost producing and forward pricing,” he notes.
No, it's not a pretty picture. Forward pricing, one of the industry's more elegant euphemisms, isn’t as attractive as it sounds. For those of you who need a translation, that means: Selling equipment at a loss.
Despite this nasty concept of selling at a loss into the FTTP market, overall the news wasn't so bad at OFC/NFOEC. Optimists could take note of the ramblings of one attendee of the show, a metal-plating salesman who bent our ear at the bar on Wednesday night.
“Hey, I’m an optimist,” he said. “There were a lot of good things at this show, a lot better than last year. Some people I know are grinning at the big deals they landed."
Our friend wouldn’t share the details of the big deals. But we’ll take his word for it. There's been a lot of grinning at the hotel bar this week.
— R. Scott Raynovich, US Editor, Light Reading