Startup Joins All-Optical Fight

On Monday a new player will make its official entrance into the all-optical switch arena: OptXCon Inc.

At first glance, OptXCon looks as if it faces a virtually impossible job trying to catch up to other companies -- like Corvis, Nortel (NYSE/TSE: NT), and Tellium -- that have a big head start working on all-optical switches. Currently, it has only three employees and a mere $1 million in seed funding.

But the company says it's got a trick up its sleeve that will level the playing field. Specifically: It has contracted with an unnamed laboratory to develop a new type of liquid crystal switch fabric that will form the basis of its product.

Another point in OptXCon's favor: It's backed by Adva AG Optical Networking (Neuer Markt: ADV-SS), an established optical networking player that has provided the seed money and is likely to come in again for the first full round of funding.

Liquid crystal technology could eliminate a potential problem with all-optical switches like the ones being developed by Nortel and Tellium, which are based on micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS), and use tiny tilting mirrors to switch light. Some critics have expressed concern that, over time, the moving mechanical parts in MEMS products could wear out or "stick." Liquid crystal switches would eliminate that problem because they have no moving parts, supposedly making them more reliable.

"The telephone companies moved away from mechanical switches a long time ago. There's a good reason for that, and it's the same reason that is making people worried about the acceptability of a MEMS switch in a central office," says Donald P. Bouchard, founder, president, and CEO of OptXCon.

OptXCon is not the only company working on liquid crystal switching. Corning (NYSE:GLW), is known to be working on liquid crystal components in its laboratories. And other startups in this field include Chorum Technologies Inc. and Spectraswitch Inc. (see JDS Uniphase Moves Into MEMS). OptXcon claims that its liquid crystal technology will incorporate patent-pending techniques that deliver faster switching times, and lower levels of attenuation and crosstalk than its competitors' products. But it's far too early to tell whether its claims have any merit.

OptXCon's liquid crystal technology also will face competition from companies that develop products based on the bubble technology developed by Agilent Technologies Inc. (NYSE:A) (see Agilent Unveils Optical Switching Breakthrough). Like liquid crystal, bubble-based switch fabrics have no parts that can wear out.

-- Stephen Saunders, US Editor, Light Reading, http://www.lightreading.com

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