MegaSense Plans $100 VOA

Components startup MegaSense Inc. plans to unveil its first product next Tuesday (March 12), a variable optical attenuator (VOA) based on MEMS (micro-electro-mechanical system) technology.

The most significant thing about MegaSense's VOA is that it will be priced at "under $100 in volume," according to Vladimir Vaganov, the company's founder and CEO.

MegaSense is achieving this by designing the VOA and its production processes with mass manufacture in mind. Vaganov says he's using the same techniques that enabled him and his pals to churn out millions of MEMS-based pressure sensors a month for automobile airbags in his previous job, at a cost of between $5 and $8 apiece. He says the VOA is, if anything, less complicated than a pressure sensor, and thus easier to make (see Dark Horse Enters MEMS Market -- and pay special note to the Article Talk afterwards).

So, is "under $100 in volume" a big deal?

Competitors acknowledge that $100 is between three and four times less expensive than equivalent VOAs. "$100 does sound as though it cracks the bottom of today's market," acknowledges Michael H. Shimazu, VP of marketing and business development for Molecular OptoElectronics Corp. (MOEC), which today announced its own VOA development, albeit not one based on MEMS technology (see MOEC Intros EDWA and VOA). Shimazu expects MOEC's VOA to sell for around $350 for volume orders.

A startup making a directly comparable MEMS-based VOA, LightConnect Inc., quotes a price of "under $400" for its product (see LightConnect Comes Into Bloom). However, its VP of marketing, Yves LeMaitre, says VOAs aren't being sold in large volumes today. As a result, he contends, MegaSense "will not be able to reach the high volumes it needs to drive down the price."

Right now, at least 35 companies have already announced VOAs, and only three are shipping significant volumes, according to LeMaitre. They are JDS Uniphase Inc. (Nasdaq: JDSU; Toronto: JDU), LightConnect, and DiCon Fiberoptics Inc.

LeMaitre goes on to say that price isn't the key issue for most of his customers. Performance is more important. MegaSense's performance specs, shown in the table below, are comparable with LightConnect's, according to Le Maitre, with the exception of its wavelength-dependent loss (WDL), which LeMaitre considers "a bit high."

Table 1: Preliminary Specification
Characteristic Value
Attentuation range 0-30dB minimum
Insertion loss 0.8 dB maximum
Return loss 55 dB minimum
Polarization dependent loss 0.2 dB maximum across 0-20dB range
Wavelength dependent loss 0.4 dB across 0-20dB range
Optical power 300 mW maximum
Response speed 2 milliseconds typical
Footprint on PCB 7.6mm x 15.5mm
Height to PCB 6.4mm

MegaSense cites three main applications for its VOA: amplification, pre-emphasis, and equalization. LeMaitre says the relatively high WDL figure might discourage its use in amplifiers.

Vaganov says that MegaSense's first product is also "two or three times smaller than the leading VOAs" (the dimensions in the table include the VOA's boot). LeMaitre says LightConnect's VOA isn't a lot bigger; it measures 12.3 by 9.2 by 6.5 millimeters.

Vaganov adds that the sub-$100 pricetag for MegaSense's VOA will help create a bigger market for this type of device, because it'll become economical to use VOAs more extensively. "VOAs will be the resistors of optical networks," says Vaganov. In other words, they'll end up being dirt cheap and everywhere.

Vaganov goes on to say that sub-$100 "isn't the limit." There's still plenty of scope to drive down the price further -- by further refinements of the VOA's design to automate even more of its manufacture. Eventually, the price could be "way below $100," he says.

MegaSense expects to start commercial shipments of its low-cost VOA next month (April 2002).

— Peter Heywood, Founding Editor, Light Reading

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