Start-ups turn up the volume in optical networks

New optical amplifier technology promises to drop the costs of setting up and managing optical networks, savings that could translate into lower service costs for customers.

This week two start-ups, Genoa and Onetta Inc., will unveil advances that could speed the development of wavelength services.

"You could have a wavelength service that would switch between a corporate site and a storage facility at night and a database service during the day," says Scott Clavenna, president of PointEast Research.

Keeping down the cost of building these all-optical networks, a task still under way by service providers such as Broadwing Inc. and Williams Communications Group Inc., will only help keep down the cost of services that run on them, but ultimately that is up to the carriers.

In the case of Genoa, the company's Linear Optical Amplifier appears to be the only semiconductor-based offering that can amplify multiple wavelengths of light in a single device, analysts say. It is meant for use in metropolitan-area networks and costs significantly less than alternatives.

Onetta is battling with optical giants such as Corning Inc., Nortel Networks Corp. and JDS Uniphase Corp. to make more-efficient and intelligent long-haul amplifiers that support a longer span of fiber between amplifiers.

Genoa is focused on metropolitan fiber networks where amplifiers are needed not to extend the reach of a signal on a fiber span but to boost the signal after it has passed through all-optical switches or optical add-drop multiplexers. These devices take light channels from input fibers and switch the light to different output fibers, weakening the light signals in the process.

Key to Genoa's offering is its ability to amplify up to about three dozen wavelengths on one fiber (see graphic). Previous semiconductor optical amplifiers could only handle one wavelength at a time.

Jeff Montgomery, chairman of ElectroniCast, an optical technology forecasting firm, expects the new amplifiers to cost a quarter to half the price of the alternatives - hundreds of dollars vs. US$1,000 for slimmed-down, long-haul amplifiers.

Onetta is introducing its Intelligent Optical Engine amplifier, which is designed to streamline long-distance optical networks and make them less costly. Optical signals need to be amplified after about 50 miles because they peter out over distance. After being amplified three times, they need to be converted to electrical signals and regenerated as optical signals. This requires $2 million regenerators.

The longer the reach of an optical amplifier - costing between US$15,000 and $40,000 - the fewer regenerators are needed in the network, reducing cost, says Dale Richardson, a Broadwing official. (Broadwing does not use Onetta products.) Onetta says it can push an optical signal 620 to 3,100 miles without regeneration, depending on how much bandwidth the fiber is carrying.

Onetta software tunes its amplifier components automatically so service providers can add and drop wavelengths on a fiber without sending technicians to reconfigure the amplifiers.

Onetta:; Genoa: