Short-haul, point-to-point wireless company Sceptre Communications (UK) Ltd. has built products offering secure, high-speed transmission with 99.995 percent availability, based on Russian space program technology. The Sputnik solution, we'd like to call it.
And the firm, based in South Wales, has already won a contract (signed in May this year) and deployed equipment with at least one major mobile operator in northern Europe. Although Sceptre is not naming any names, a reliable source tells us this carrier is U.K. greenfield operator Hutchison 3G UK Ltd.
Sceptre's Russian R&D team has developed products that can securely transmit voice and data at speeds up to about 34 Mbit/s (at present) over distances of up to 1.6 kilometers using light emitting diode (LED) technology rather than lasers to generate the infrared beam. This means that transmission is not affected by meteorological conditions, such as fog, which is a major issue for the developers and users of free-space optics (FSO) technology. This allows the company to claim 99.995 percent availability, no matter what the weather conditions might be.
Sceptre is pushing its products as a last-mile solution for network operators, ISPs, and enterprises alike. Mobile operators could use it to backhaul traffic over short point-to-point distances, for example in urban and suburban areas, from their base stations.
Instead of sending the telecom traffic across a narrow, single-wavelength beam, which is the FSO model, Sceptre's products produce a "multiple-wavelength, wide, conical beam, like the beam of a torch," explains the firm's founder and director Leon Rizzi. "These multiple wavelengths each carry the voice and data, so even if there is really thick fog, some of the wavelengths will get through to the receiver." This is because those wavelengths are traveling across a wide band -- 720 to 900 nanometers -- "so there is always a window for transmission," says Rizzi, because the water droplets that make up fog will affect only part of that range, depending on how dense it is, but never the entire range.
"We also have high-power transmission to give us the distance and very sensitive receivers that can pick up faint signals. That's where the space program developments have made a major impact. Our technology guarantees availability over our stated distances in all weather conditions," boasts the founder, adding that in the second quarter of 2003, Sceptre will have better diodes and more sensitive receivers ready that can extend the distance to 2.5 kilometers at speeds of up to 34 Mbit/s, and up to 155 Mbit/s over 1.5 kilometers. The only difference between the systems offering different speeds is the modem box. "Any upgrade just means replacing the modem box, nothing else."
In addition to licking the weather conditions, Sceptre reckons it has an "interesting" cost proposition. "Microwave systems are the technical equivalent, but those systems require huge operational costs for skilled engineers to keep the system maintained and to ensure there are no health issues with its deployment. You don't need any of that with our system, and you don't need planning permission to install the equipment. The technology does not need skilled maintenance, it's incredibly simple to install, and there are no health issues. LED beams do not penetrate the skin, and the light does not harm the eyes. It's like a TV remote control."
The equipment prices are just below those of equivalent wireless access systems, "but what really sells this system is the amazingly low cost of ownership," says Sceptre's head of sales and distribution, Steve Jones, who declined to share details of the product price list (the spoilsport). "Carriers are looking to lower their operational expenditures, and this is what our system offers. It's cheaper on all levels."
"We are the first infrared provider to be in a major mobile carrier in Europe," claims Rizzi, declining to name that carrier or any other customers. But Unstrung understands that this carrier is Hutchison in the U.K., though the carrier declined to comment on whether it was using Sceptre equipment.
What about other carriers? "We have trials set up with a number of operators for January 2003," adds Rizzi. "The time is right for our product as the 3G operators build out their networks. We need to get our manufacturing capacity up as soon as possible to meet the demand we already have, as you never know what is around the corner -- technology rots."
To do that, the company needs to increase its production capabilities, which is one of the things it is concentrating on just now. "Production will be subcontracted within the U.K.," says Jones.
That takes money. "We are talking to venture capitalists," says Rizzi, "but we have revenues too! We need working capital for sure."
The revenue potential looks promising if the company can meet demand with quality products that perform to specifications. Gartner Inc. predicts that the market for free-space optics products was worth $120 million in 2001 and will be worth $4 billion in 2005. Then there is potential revenue from the enterprise sector and the microwave market that Sceptre could win.
So is this company's proposition as good as it sounds? Yes, says consultant Terry Edwards, executive director of Engalco. "I am extremely impressed with Sceptre. Pricing is where they score very highly -- it is great value for money. And there are plenty of companies, OEMs, in free-space optics that are dressing up their products to be something they are not and offering very bad value. Sceptre is not one of those companies, and neither is Holoplex Technologies Inc.," says Edwards unprompted. Holoplex does not compete with Sceptre, as its products are not suited to the shorter-haul access market (see Can FSO Go the Distance?).
"Sceptre is in a potentially powerful position because they have been able to take years of high-caliber technical output from Russia and develop from that some highly capable, very good value link systems with carrier-grade availability that really do work. And they already have customers, and that list is growing," states Edwards.
He believes Sceptre's major problems will come from trying to meet customer demand. "They will probably need to strike some alliances for marketing cooperation, potentially with companies that are offering complementary systems. But what a great problem to have!"
Edwards thinks Sceptre needs to dress up its products, too. "The appearance of the products leaves a lot to be desired, but then they are coming out of Russia, so it's to be expected."
That's not the only thing that could do with a makeover, in Unstrung's humble opinion. Sceptre's Website, which shows how young this company is, could do with some major input, too, if the company is to achieve its marketing potential.
— Ray Le Maistre, European Editor, Unstrung