OFC 2009: What a difference a year makes

SAN DIEGO, CA--Last year, the mood of the Optical Society’s (OSA; Washington, DC) Optical Fiber Communication Conference/National Fiber Optic Engineers Conference (OFC/NFOEC) was upbeat as show exhibitors and attendees intent on “feeding the bandwidth beast” were finally seeing real growth and beginning to recover from the bubble days.

SAN DIEGO, CA--Last year, the mood of the Optical Society’s (OSA; Washington, DC) Optical Fiber Communication Conference/National Fiber Optic Engineers Conference (OFC/NFOEC) was upbeat as show exhibitors and attendees intent on “feeding the bandwidth beast” were finally seeing real growth and beginning to recover from the bubble days (see www.laserfocusworld.com/articles/323294). But this year, even though demand for greater bandwidth is still very real, economic reality hit home for OFC/NFOEC (held again in San Diego from March 22–26) in the way of diminished attendance and fear-driven pessimism.

Nearly every exhibitor I spoke with was disappointed in the exhibits traffic; many of them keeping up with emails to stay busy. A fiber-optic test-equipment company said that even though business was still ‘adequate’ for them, many companies were holding off on purchasing capital equipment strictly out of fear, not knowing what the future would bring. And the pessimistic attitude was not helped by a March 18 story on FierceTelecom’s (www.fiercetelecom.com) website that confirmed the June SuperComm conference in Chicago, IL was postponed until October. Even though the article said that the postponement was due to a change in show management to improve “stability and value” of the conference, rumor on the OFC/NFOEC show floor was that SuperComm did not obtain the 50% exhibitor reservations that it needed by a particular timeframe.

Technical paper submissions for OFC/NFOEC 2009 came in at 1123, just shy of the 1155 of last year. And similar to last year, 28% of the submissions were from Europe and 39% came from the Pacific Rim. With overall attendance numbers holding steady over the past few years at around 12,000, the official 9500 OFC/NFOEC attendee count for 2009 was a disappointment, and roughly in keeping with the feeling by many exhibitors that booth traffic was down about 30% from last year. The lowered attendance was seen by the 550 exhibitors at OFC/NFOEC 2009 (compared to last year’s 600 exhibitors) as an unwelcome trend that they do not want to see repeated next year when the show returns to San Diego.

Bandwidth explosion?

Even though the economy has negatively impacted the telecom markets, “[We will] emerge out of this process,” said Philippe Morin, president, Metro Ethernet Networks at Nortel (Toronto, ON, Canada). In his Plenary presentation on Tuesday morning, Morin described the global megatrends that are driving optical innovation, and why he thinks these trends will usher in a bandwidth explosion in coming years.

Morin sees three major megatrends. First of all, new business models are accelerating bandwidth growth. Travel budgets will never return to historic levels and newspapers are dying, increasing the need for video conferencing, telecommuting infrastructure, and even virtual tradeshows. Second, personal connectivity is moving from a “nice to have” to a necessity, says Morin. In 2000, the Internet was an experiment. But in 2009, he says, it’s clear the Internet will play an ultra-powerful role in driving the need for bandwidth both for businesses and residential citizens. And finally, Morin sees the demand for high-definition video as fueling the next wave of bandwidth growth; advertising dollars can support free high-definition streaming video especially when there can be millions of viewers for popular events like March Madness.

Couple these megatrends with the amazing statistic from Plenary speaker Shri Kuldeep Goyal, chairman and managing director of Bahrat Sanchar Nigam Ltd. (BSNL; India) that in January 2009, 15 million new mobile-phone users were added in India (which is the same number added in the U.S. in all of 2008), and it’s easy to see how broadband communication growth could explode. Goyal’s Plenary, entitled “The Growth of Fiber Networks in India,” revealed many amazing statistics on the potential growth in optical communication networks within India, especially the revelation that 3.2 million kilometers of fiber-to-the-premises/home/node (FTTX) cabling was added in 2008–2009, a number that will grow to 19 million kilometers by 2014–2015. Even by 2011, it is expected that 5% of all households in India will have FTTH services--quite a contrast from South Korea, Hong Kong, and Japan, who enjoy more than 25% FTTH penetration. India, says Goyal, is ripe for broadband growth.

This year’s final Plenary was an ‘out-of-the-box’ presentation from Stanford Law School professor Lawrence Lessig, who used multimedia examples from the Internet developed by creative artists and discussed the role of copyright law in helping or hindering that creativity. His message was basically that copyright law for “hybrid” mixing of media by private individuals needs to be balanced against the exploitive use of original media by professionals seeking monetary gain. Striking a good balance will be important for the telecom industry, which depends on a multimedia boom to drive broadband optical growth.

New technologies debated

A number of technology debates were evident in the various Market Watch presentations, Panel Discussions, and Plenary sessions at OFC/NFOEC 2009.

The first arose in the Plenary when Nortel’s Morin predicted that coherent communication schemes would be the way forward, leveraging CMOS and digital processing technology to move beyond today’s 100 gigabit per wavelength to the not-so-distant-in-the-future terabit per wavelength capabilities. But discussions with tekkies at companies like Vitesse, OFS, Furukawa, and Xtellus revealed a different opinion: While everyone sees the “electronic compensation” and “digitally tuned to eliminate the ITU grid” wizardry of coherent communications as crucial to extending bandwidth and reach for existing fiber types and infrastructure, many felt that the high cost of coherent communications must strike a balance with ongoing improvements in optical components and optical methods of signal routing and chromatic/polarization or other dispersion effects. Because last year’s OFC/NFOEC Plenary also hinted at a revival of coherent networks, the debate will no doubt continue.

Tuesday’s Panel Discussion entitled “Deployment of New Fiber Types,” moderated by Corning’s (Corning, NY) Sergey Ten, asked the question, “Have all of the fiber types needed for the various networks been invented?” Attendee Claudio Mazzali, manager, new business & technology development, Optical Fiber, Corning, said that representatives of the submarine network groups on the panel from Tyco and Alcatel were supportive of adopting new fiber types with lower attenuation and larger effective area. However, panel members on the terrestrial and carrier side from AT&T were concerned about the “hidden” costs of new fiber types, which add increased complexity, often require new standards development, and raise backwards-compatibility challenges. Mazzali said that the G.652D standard already covers fibers spanning the gamut from bend-insensitive to ultra-low loss, and that there is room for additional designs to comply with that standard.

New products

On the heels of its release of ClearCurve bend-insensitive single-mode fiber, Corning demonstrated its ClearCurve ultra-bendable multimode optical fiber (released in January) for use in data centers and enterprise networks. This fiber withstands tight bends at or below 10 mm radius with substantially less signal loss than traditional multimode fiber, allowing designers, installers, and operators of enterprise networks to deliver the bandwidth benefits of optical fiber in a package that is easier to handle and install than copper. And Furukawa company OFS (Norcross, GA) was also demonstrating its EZ-Bend cables, with bending loss performance up to 500-times better than conventional single-mode fiber cables under tight bends routinely encountered in residential and business installations.

Exfo (Quebec City, Canada) showed the industry’s first distributed polarization mode dispersion (PMD) analyzer. The FTB-5600 Distributed PMD Analyzer allows quantification of the level of PMD as it accumulates along an entire optical network. Network operators can now accurately measure PMD distribution for each fiber section and compensate accordingly.

Other new products included a high-density lensed ferrule-based interconnect from Molex (Lisle, IL) and an expanded-beam EBOSA connector from GigaCom (Sweden), both designed to expand the beam between connection ends, loosening alignment tolerances and reducing losses from debris. For many of these and other new products, please see the expanded “Photonics Products” section on the home page at www.laserfocusworld.com.

--Gail Overton

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