LightPointe Gets Into Small Cell Backhaul

A high-capacity laser technology called Free Space Optics (FSO) could make a comeback as a way for network operators to quickly add backhaul for small cells in heavily used parts of their networks.

"I suppose you could say that we were ahead of our time," says Dr. Heinz Willebrand, president and CEO of LightPointe Communications Inc. since 2008, talking about the firm's 13-year history of developing FSO products. (See $12M 1st Round for LightPointe.)

Willebrand, however, thinks that the time is now for the company's products, thanks to the "iPhone effect," with the massive growth of smartphones and other wireless devices forcing carriers to quickly add network radios and additional backhaul capacity in high-traffic areas.

Willebrand says that the company's portfolio is ideal for providing massive capacity over short distances, a characteristic that could prove to be ideal for supporting Long Term Evolution (LTE) deployments where operators may be looking for technology that supports multiple hubs that each carry hundreds of megabits of data traffic.

ABI Research estimates 4 million tiny base stations will be shipped per year by 2015. Clearly, it won't be possible to run fiber to millions of base stations installed on light poles, rooftops and traffic lights, but FSO bridges could provide ultra-fast -- up to 1.25Gbit/s -- line-of-sight connections over short distances.

Longtime readers will remember that FSO connections could be hampered by fog. Willebrand notes that the firm's products have implemented an auto-switching microwave radio connection along with the infrared laser, so that the connection stays up in fog, rain or snow. (See 4G: Can't Stand the Rain, Fog Clears for Free-Space Optics and Can FSO Go the Distance?) The firm currently sells short-range high-capacity links to enterprises, government, carriers and other ISPs. (See LightPointe Debuts Enterprise FSO.)

LightPointe, like other firms in the sector, has had its ups and downs in the FSO business. Willebrand describes it as akin to a "roller coaster ride" at times, but now says the company has a stable business through a strategy of greater product diversification and delivering offerings for both enterprises and carriers.

LightPointe: Then and now
The firm was spun off from research firm Eagle Optoelectronics Inc. in 1998. The company won almost a dozen patents early on and grabbed millions for its pioneering technology, which was touted as an alternative to fiber connections. By May 2006, the company had pulled in $71 million in funding but hit rough waters. This led to a buyout funded by Silicon Valley-based Berg & Berg Enterprises -- in which management and employees retained some stock ownership -- and the restructuring of operations, although Willebrand says LightPointe never actually shut its doors. (See LightPointe Switches On (Again).)

In the restructuring, CTO Willebrand, spun off and co-founded millimeter wave radio provider Rayawave as CEO in June 2006. By December 2008, however, he was back at LightPointe (this time as CEO) as the two firms merged and the Rayawave 60GHz and 70/80GHz radio products were integrated into the LightPointe product portfolio.

Now LightPointe is looking forward to the expected boom in small cell deployments as a new catalyst for the company. Massive vendors like Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU) and Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) are pushing the tiny base stations as the future macro architecture of 4G networks, and how to backhaul the pint-sized radio nodes is likely to be one of the big headaches for operators looking to add capacity to their networks. (See Ericsson's Small Cells Come Up for AIR and AlcaLu's lightRadio Set for Early 2012 Debut.)

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Light Reading Mobile

joset01 12/5/2012 | 4:53:54 PM
re: LightPointe Gets Into Small Cell Backhaul

Well FSO definitely has some speed virtues when we're talking about moving massive amounts of data. I suspect cost and ease of deployment will get more important as more small cells get out there.

shygye75 12/5/2012 | 4:53:54 PM
re: LightPointe Gets Into Small Cell Backhaul

Is this really a "comeback"? It feels more like a resurrection -- kind of like those Dracula movies that Hammer Studios cranked out.

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