Scaled-back OFC returns to its roots

Last year's Optical Fiber Communications (OFC) conference was a spectacle of venture-capital proportions; this year's was nearly mundane by comparison, reflecting the growing pains the optical-networking industry has endured the last 12 months.

by Valerie C. Coffey and Kathy Kincade

Last year's Optical Fiber Communications (OFC) conference was a spectacle of venture-capital proportions; this year's was nearly mundane by comparison, reflecting the growing pains the optical-networking industry has endured the last 12 months. In fact, without as much hype and extravagance, the 2002 OFC conference in Anaheim, CA, March 17-22, was a refreshing return to technology as the enabler, rather than the by-product.

In a common strategic shift, new-product announcements at OFC tended to refine existing technology, extending rather than pushing the envelope to reduce noise, decrease channel spacing, or extend reach. The introduction of "next-generation technology" cut a wide swath through the aisles, as companies with fewer customers to cater to have spent their time positioning for an eventual upturn in the year "200X."

Component and equipment manufacturers emphasized reduced cost, integration, and inter-company cooperation. Nortel announced multisource agreements with Sumitomo Electric Industries (Japan) for standard packaging for a 10-Gbit/s indium phosphide-based transmitter/modulator, and with Agere (Allentown, PA) for a 10-Gbit/s surface-mount receiver. Nortel also announced a multisource agreement with Alcatel Optronics (Paris, France) and JDS Uniphase for 960- to 980-nm uncooled pump lasers for erbium-doped fiber amplifiers.

In other co-ops, Lightwave Microsystems (San Jose, CA) announced a dynamic gain equalizer in collaboration with Corning. Gemfire (Palo Alto, CA) and WaveSplitter (Fremont, CA) announced a hybrid eight-channel variable optical attenuator multiplexer (VOA-Mux) combining WaveSplitter's silica-on-silicon arrayed waveguide grating with Gemfire's polymer VOA on one chip.

Volume production
Automation and volume manufacturing were once again prevalent on the OFC show floor, with more than 75 exhibitors in fiber manufacturing equipment alone. New products from established vendors included the Flexsys family of automated work-cell assembly tools from Automation Tooling Systems (Cambridge, Ont.). A new automated component assembly line from Palomar (Vista, CA) combines laser-diode attach assembly and wire-bonding capabilities with photonic dispensing, optical-fiber alignment and attachment, and test and measurement capabilities developed by Palomar partners Creative Automation (Sun Valley, CA), Axsys (Rocky Hill, CT), and ILX Lightwave (Bozeman, MT).

Test and measurement also had a strong presence at OFC this year, with particular emphasis on the role of automated testing in volume production. Several new faces debuted in this niche during the show. Katsina Optics (Milpitas, CA) launched its first automated test product, the KCT-2100, leveraging the company's background in automated test technologies for volume production in the disk-drive industry. Luna Technologies (Blacksburg, VA) introduced its flagship product, the Optical Vector Analyzer 1550, which leverages Luna's patented component characterization technique.

Technical conference
The strong technical proceedings of the meeting included a paper by the Photonic and Wireless Device Research Labs of NEC Corp (Shiga, Japan), presenting a potentially disruptive fabrication process that prevents aluminum oxidation in laser materials. The process enables fabrication of 1.3-μm aluminum gallium-indium arsenide (AlGaInAs) multiple-quantum-well (MQW) buried heterostructure (BH) laser diodes with threshold currents as low as 9.0 mA. Output power of 10 mW resulted from an operation current of less than 55 mA at 85°C. Direct modulation of 10 Gbit/s and a relaxation oscillation frequency over 10 GHz was therefore obtained for the first time using AlGaInAs BH laser diodes.

Sumitomo Electric Industries (Yokohama, Japan) set a new record for ultralow loss in fiber. The ultralow-loss pure silica core fiber was fabricated with a large effective area to reduce nonlinearity. Depressed cladding was introduced to the large effective area to improve bending characteristics by confining the optical power into the core. An attenuation of 0.151 dB/km was achieved, the lowest reported since 1986.

A record number of companies exhibited at OFC 2002—1227 vs. 970 in 2001—while attendance was down from 38,000 in 2001 to 32,000 this year. Next year, the show will be held in a larger venue in Atlanta, GA, March 23-28, 2003.

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