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Free-Space Optic Service Fills a Gap

Much is changing in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. Will one of them be the speed at which broadband-service providers deploy laser-based network access solutions?

Traditional wireline carriers struggled at times to restore service to all customers cut off by the damage resulting from terrorist attacks on New York's World Trade Center. As recently as two weeks after the attacks, Verizon Communications reported 10,000 lower Manhattan customers were still without basic phone service.

But several providers of broadband links via so-called free-space optic (FSO) technology rapidly deployed connectivity to large customers in lower Manhattan when wireline access was unavailable.

The New York installations were a high-profile demonstration of a technology that's not yet widely deployed in the U.S. — one with capabilities that could grab the attention of more service providers as they scramble to snare metro-area business customers.

"Because of the benefits of FSO technology, any carrier that is in New York that wasn't maybe exposed to it yet is maybe now considering it as an alternative," said John Griffin, president and CEO of free-space optic equipment developer LightPointe. "How that's going to play out, you can't predict, but we're seeing more interest because this event has put more emphasis on how the technology benefits customers."

FSO promises temporary or permanent last-mile broadband connectivity that's available much more quickly and cheaply than through alternatives that require the installation of new hybrid fiber coaxial or lateral lines or the use of fixed-wireless networks that employ licensed spectrum.

"Time of response is our biggest benefit," said Chuck Woods, president of McLean, Va.-based value-added reseller Synergy Telecommunications Corp. (Syntelco). "Some of what we do is for emergency response. Other things are more normal projects."

Just four days after the attacks, Syntelco — working on behalf of Qwest Communications International Inc. — set up a laser link connecting the Federal Emergency Management Administration offices at 26 Federal Plaza with the carrier colocation facility at 60 Hudson St.

Syntelco, which also provides wireless broadband links via microwave or satellite, used FSO gear from San Diego-based LightPointe to meet FEMA's request for two T-1 lines. The equipment actually supports a connection providing OC-3 equivalent bandwidth, which Syntelco converted to multiple T-1s using multiplexers and other gear from ADTRAN Inc.

The laser transceiver unit was bolted to the windowsill of the area FEMA director's office on the 13th floor of 26 Federal Plaza. It beams the laser light that carries a data stream to another unit on the 20th floor of 60 Hudson St.

Syntelco also uses FSO equipment from other vendors, including Optical Access Inc. and fSONA Communications Corp. The deployments under its belt include major companies such as Capital One Financial Corp. and Internet-service provider PSINet Inc., as well as carriers. For instance, Qwest recently requested a temporary link to provide OC-3 data connectivity recently to a downtown San Francisco hotel for an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers industry conference.

In another post-Sept. 11 deployment, Seattle-based Terabeam Corp. installed 1 gigabit per second laser links that connected Merrill Lynch & Co. offices in two buildings at 4 World Financial Center, close to the former World Trade Center site, to a sister facility across the Hudson River in New Jersey.

Terabeam has already launched commercial service in Seattle and Denver, and indications are that it may soon report a major carrier deal of its own. The Merrill deployment provides the company the opportunity to further showcase its capabilities.

Such an assignment comes at a good time for Terabeam, which last week announced plans to scale down its market-launch schedule and cut its workforce by about 20 percent in order to conserve cash during the economic slowdown.

FSO technology has been available for some time, but developers have been working in the last few years to deal with technical issues and perceptions that its reliability makes it only marginally useful to service providers that want 99.99 percent or greater reliability — especially in areas of heavy fog or other conditions that might hinder laser transmission.

Qwest recently reached an agreement with LightPointe that marks the first major step by a service provider to include FSO technology in its overall network plans.

Though Qwest declines to talk about the deal, LightPointe executives said traditional carriers were expressing heightened interest in FSO technology even before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Griffin said large and small carriers were looking for the most cost-effective means to provide the broadband connectivity that generally remains lacking at the edge and core of metro networks. That's especially true for carriers with customers who are demanding high volume bandwidth in the still developing OC-48 range.

"The event that's driving this interest is the capital markets," Griffin said. "All the carriers are looking for new technologies that will help them deliver their services to customers and generate a good return for their shareholders."

Further indicating wireline network operators' willingness to deploy FSO connectivity where it's needed, Terabeam last week announced a deal that expands its service capabilities through an alliance with metro fiber-optic networks provider Telseon Inc.

Terabeam will be able to connect its own customers in Seattle and Denver — as well as markets where it deploys its laser gear in the future — to Telseon data centers and carrier hotels. Those sites will serve as links to long-haul networks, the Internet and other services, such as video conferencing or data storage.