Last mile lasers

Free space optic vendors are attempting to expand into the enterprise agenda as they tout the technology’s ability to deliver high bandwidth connectivity at low prices.

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By  Matthew Southwell Published  January 4, 2004

|~|FSO_M.jpg|~|When deployed in urban areas, free space optics can act as a low cost yet high speed link for last mile connectivity.|~|Free space optics (FSO), also known as free space photonics (FSP), refers to the transmission of modulated visible or infrared beams through the atmosphere for communication. The technology has been around for some time, and first found favour in the armed forces during the late 1960s, where it was used for secure military point-to-point applications. Since then, FSO has been edging its way towards the enterprise environment, first through government installations based on military style technology set ups, and then into verticals such as the telecommunications industry, where it is used as a last mile solution. Today, vendors such as LightPointe, Laserbit and PAV Data Systems believe FSO is a solution that can provide virtually any company with last mile and back haul connectivity between access points and an enterprise backbone. “FSO is a point-to-point technology that uses laser light as a transmission medium. It is currently deployed in the enterprise markets, as well as teleco service provider marketplaces to provide fulfilment for varied applications, but primarily network access for last mile applications,” says Walter Koenig, CEO & chairman, Laserbit Communications. “We are seeing good uptake of FSO from service providers as a last mile solution and it is used as a LAN-to-LAN extension for applications in the campus environment. We are also seeing it increasingly used as a back haul technology to support Wi-Fi and hotspot deployments in the wireless local area network (WLAN) environment,” he adds. FSO’s shift to the enterprise space has been driven by three key factors — the reduced cost of telecommunication grade lasers, the increased reliability of such solutions and a growing demand for bandwidth from end user organisations. “The proliferation of laser in a number of products has reduced the component pricing of many of the key elements, while reliability and performance has gone up. This is coupled with a market demand for ever increasing bandwidth levels,” Koenig confirms. “This has driven FSO to the forefront of many network planners agendas,” he says. The multitude of benefits offered by FSO is also helping it establish its enterprise credentials. For instance, it has a relatively low acquisition cost compared to leased line connectivity. “We use a return on investment (ROI) model that is based on either an E1 or DSL leased line cost and we amortise that over a six month to one year period,” explains Malek Charles Akilie, director of sales for the Middle East at LightPointe. “In that time frame, users get a fixed capital expenditure that pays for the FSO equipment yet provides between 50-100 times more bandwidth,” he says. Currently, FSO technology is also license free, which means that end users wishing to implement the technology do not have to wait for official permission, nor invest in the license itself. Although the legal advantages of FSO could be overturned if local operators see it as a threat to their leased line business and start to lobby governments, few involved in FSO feel this is likely. “I have spoken with local PTTs in the region and the first question they ask is what spectrum of radio frequency (RF) it uses. When the answer is none at all, their response is that this is not a regulation point,” says Akilie. Security is another much touted benefit of FSO, with vendors explaining how anyone intent on hacking into the lasers would need something of the James Bond about them to get anywhere a FSO receiver as they are typically placed high up on buildings or on telecom towers to ensure they have the line of sight needed to provide the broadband connectivity. Furthermore, unlike radio waves, hackers need sophisticated tools to make sense of the lasers. “The difference between a laser based system and a RF based systems is that a hacker has to physically intrude to get to the bit stream, whereas with RF it floats through the air and can be tuned into whether the hacker is at the site or not,” explains Akilie. “The classic scenario is that once a hacker uses a device that somehow inserts into a bit stream, it interrupts it and sets of an alarm. The thief would also need to have a very sophisticated and transparent interface to somehow steal information from a FSO link,” he says. Perhaps more important than FSO’s low cost, relative security and lack of licensing is the fact that it supports high bandwidth, which is increasingly important in an age where bandwidth hungry applications are being used by an increasing number of organisations. “FSO can provision extremely high speeds extremely quickly. The ability for a customer to have a 155 Mbits/s ATM link in three hours, as long as they have an AC/DC power source and a connection to the ATM switch is staggering,” says Akilie. The wide range of benefits offered by FSO has already helped it find a home within the Middle East. Like many other markets, it is attracted by the technology’s economy, high bandwidth, ease of deployment, license free operation and freedom from radio interference issues. According to Koenig, the UAE and Dubai in particular is leading local adoption due to its propensity to deploy the latest technology and the government’s push into the digital world, which means there is a greater need for high bandwidth connectivity. “Saudi Arabia is also an interesting market because it has similar characteristics to UAE, in addition to lots of closed campus environments,” he adds. Another market factor within the Middle East that could spur adoption is its high number of small-to-medium sized businesses (SMBs). Such entities increasingly require access to internet based applications or back haul solutions that allow them to connect access points to a back bone. However, they can often ill afford the cost of dedicated leased lines. “SMBs need fast access, but the availability of technologies such as copper or using modem links, DSL and multiple E lines is prohibitive in terms of cost,” confirms Samer Abdulhadi, project manager, FSSC division at Al Falak, which offers PAV Data solutions in the Middle East market. ||**|||~|akili_M.jpg|~|The Middle East's market can only get bigger says LightPointe's Malek Charles Akilie.|~|“These companies [SMBs] are looking for technologies that can link them to high speed backbones but at a price that is not too expensive. This is the beauty of FSO because SMBs can have high bandwidth at a lower cost,” he says. Another market driving adoption within the Middle East is the oil & gas sector, which favours the technology’s fast installation and flexibility. It can be moved from oil field-to-oil field, for instance. Elsewhere, the education sector is also buying into FSO as many institutes are pushing the internet into classrooms and require rapidly deployable broadband service for e-learning and wireless access. UAE University, for instance, has deployed LightPointe’s FSO offering to provide the passive network layer of an infrastructure designed to extend wireless access to its student dormitories. The institute was particularly taken by FSO’s ability to provide superior bandwidth capabilities across its huge wireless site. “We needed to connect the students to the internet and to do that we would have had to get leased lines or ATM connections from Etisalat. It would have cost Dhs1 million (US$272,300) every year to get the right performance,” says Ahmed Yasser Jamal, network administrator for dormitories & wireless, UAE University. “However, now most of the campuses, depending on their distance and size, are running between 10 and 100 Mbits/s connections using FSO,” he explains. Despite the UAE University implementation and others, such as those at Saudi Aramco, Dubai Municipality and Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority in Jordan, where LightPointe’s platform is used as part of a wireless wide area network (WAN) solution, the technology is not without its problems. Perhaps the biggest of these is the environment, as fog, snow and rain can interrupt FSO transmissions and halt the delivery of applications running over the solution. “The issue of availability comes from the environment as some weather conditions, primarily fog, affects the performance of the link,” confirms Koenig. However, the Laserbit CEO and other FSO vendors say the fog issue is less relevant to the Middle East than other areas, both because of its rarity and the fact it typically occurs early in the morning, when most users do not need the connection anyway. They also argue that improvements in FSO technology will make this issue redundant in the future. “What they [the FSO vendors] are doing is altering the wavelength of the beam and developing solutions that can overcome environmental limitations. One of the solutions uses different bandwidths to overcome fog,” says Abdulhadi. Other issues surrouding FSO include the health concerns over lasers and building movement, which can disrupt the line of sight required for the technology to function correctly. However, once again the vendors suggest that advances in the technology have overcome these issues. Less tangible than these problems, but perhaps equally as important, is the image of FSO. While its military heritage allows it to counter any accusations of unreliability, the fact that free space technology has been consigned to niches in the past means it may struggle to scale the enterprise agenda. However, LightPointe counters this by referencing its links to Cisco, which is an investor in the company and allows LightPointe to carry its logo on its kit. “The customer gets a profound sense of comfort knowing that every switch and router made by Cisco has been interoperability tested with LightPointe in many different settings,” says Akilie. While it appears as though the FSO vendors can overcome fog, image and the other issues facing them, the one thing they cannot do it extend the reach of their technology. It works best over distances shorter than 10km and the only way to go beyond this is to run relays of FSO devices. However, this is both unrealistic and becomes increasingly expensive for customers, therefore neutering one of the technology’s main advantages. “It is definitely a metropolitan or large campus type technology,” says Akilie. “It is not the kind of technology you would use to link Abu Dhabi and Dubai, for instance. We are talking about distances between 5-10 km, depending on the design,” he adds. Due to this limitation, the most realistic approach for enterprises looking to deploy FSO is to use it as part of an integrated infrastructure solution. For instance, UAE University used it in conjunction with Cisco’s Aironet wireless, Catalyst switches and Long Reach Ethernet solutions. “FSO is not a 100% replacement for existing technology. It is complementary and it addresses certain needs and niches. If a company wants 100km plus communications between buildings then it has to use the existing copper network rather than FSO. However, if the user is dedicated to having a high speed link over a short distance then FSO can provide that,” says Abdulhadi. Despite FSO’s limitations, and the fact that it will primarily be deployed as part of a larger infrastructure solution, the technology’s chief proponents are confident the local enterprise market is worth pursuing and can deliver real returns. Laserbit, for example, is investing in local headcount, marketing and channel development as it looks double its revenues in the near future. LightPointe continues to recruit technical staff and has witnessed 200% growth. As Akilie says, “this is an indication of how the FSO market is playing out in the Middle East and the market will only get bigger.” ||**||

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