The free space optics (FSO) business has suffered from unrealistic business expectations and subsequently seen more downs than ups in its short history. However, the business in the region is stubbornly refusing to fade away and is satisfying niche demand in the enterprise and service provider sectors.

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By  Simon Duddy Published  March 20, 2005

|~|FSO-pic-2_m.jpg|~||~|Free space optics (FSO) is a light-borne transport technology that provides a high bandwidth, short-range (2km or less) alternative to fibre. The industry segment has received a lot of investment but by and large it has failed to live up to expectations. This disappointment reached a nadir in 2003 when a leader in the segment, AirFiber, went out of business after receiving US$92 million in investment over the previous four years. As AirFiber wound down, its CEO Brett Helm declared the sector dead and claimed FSO would never be an ongoing and viable business. Two years on and while Helm’s disappointment is understandable, his doom-mongering has not come to pass. The FSO business in the Middle East is quietly thriving, with many brands competing to sell what is still, admittedly, a niche solution. Key among the new opportunities for FSO vendors is the increasing number of mobile operators springing up in the region as these operators use the technology for backhaul communication. “Rapid roll out of wireless backhaul for mobile service providers in the Middle East and African regions has proved important for FSO vendors. Although many links are only 2Mbytes/s E1 circuits, the rapid deployment that can be achieved with FSO makes it an ideal connectivity solution,” says Ayman Alsaffan, director, Middle East and North Africa for PAV Data Systems. A rapid and, relatively speaking, easy set-up is a key feature of FSO. Unlike fibre cabling, it doesn’t need require digging to set it up. The time-savings are significant in any location, but in a built-up area, laying cables can represent a massive headache in terms of time, cost and obtaining permission. FSO, on the other hand, only requires a clear line of sight between two points. According to Indranil Guha, head of the network services unit at the Dubai Municipality, speed of set-up was an important factor in its FSO deployments, which comprise products from PAV Data Systems and LightPointe. “If proper planning is done, an FSO systems can be installed within 24 to 48 hours,” says Guha. “Another key reason we chose it over standard WAN links like leased line or frame relay is we get very good bandwidth (100Mbytes/s) per link and we have link-aggregated two devices giving us redundancy plus 200Mbytes/s,” he adds. The high bandwidth that can be achieved using FSO is another key driver of the technology. FSO uses essentially the same mechanism as optical fibre cabling, only it uses free space as the transport medium. This means it can match the performance of fibre, which few other wireless technologies can do. “Gigabit and multi gigabit speed FSO products are commercially available on the market with the technology limits comparable to fibre optic transmission,” says Walter Koenig, chairman and CEO of LaserBit. FSO vendors often tout low cost as another strength of its technology. It can be difficult to compare technologies, as they rarely overlap exactly in terms of their purpose, but FSO is generally considered to be a cheaper option than laying fibre, for the simple reason that installation of cables is so expensive. Comparing with other wireless technologies is more difficult. Terabeam, which merged with YDI Wireless in June 2004, is in a good position to provide insight on the matter, as it handles a variety of wireless solutions, from FSO-based to pre-WiMax and Millimeter Wave radio-based solutions. “We offer a range of solutions that cater to a variety of needs,” says Faisal Saifullah, director of international sales, Middle East and Africa for Terebeam. “Pre-WiMax solutions cost in the range of US$1,000 and offer long range but relatively low bandwidth. FSO gives higher bandwidth, but operates at a shorter range and costs US$11,000-US$12,000, while Millimeter Wave products cost US$18,0000-US$37,000 depending on the modulation, but offer very high bandwidth with robust performance,” he adds. A further plus point of FSO against radio-based systems is the licensing issue. FSO is licence-free, making it a faster and easier to deploy option than radio systems, which are typically regulated. Furthermore, Millimeter Wave operates at 60Hz, which has not been approved for use by most Middle East countries, although Saudi Arabia is an exception. Comparing FSO to other wireless technologies is problematic. There is overlap in some areas but the short-range nature of FSO marks it out in its own niche. “We see point-to-point radio-based wireless and FSO links as complementary rather than competitive,” says Graham Owen, Middle East sales & channel director at radio-based wireless vendor Orthogon. “While FSO links provide significantly higher throughput rates, they are only suitable for short distances and require a clear line-of-sight path to connect reliably. By contrast, a radio-based point-to-point link can provide links at longer distances (up to 200km) and can connect around obstacles. When FSO runs out of range, the radio-based platforms begin,” he adds. In those situations when FSO does go head to head with radio, the laser-based system has another ace up its sleeve — security. FSO systems are inherently very secure from unauthorised interception, which stems from the fact that the data modulated transmission is confined to a very small physical space between the communicating terminals. While it is possible to detect the transmission signal it would require very expensive, sensitive and sophisticated equipment. “Security is reasonably good,” says Guha. “As these line-of-sight devices are used on the top of buildings, it makes it difficult to be tapped by a casual hacker. Plus, if logical security is a big concern then encryption is always an option,” he adds. Dubai Municipality also uses simple network management protocol (SNMP) boxes that can set a trap to notify its network operations centre (NOC) if the laser link is disrupted. The feature has led to wins for FSO vendors, particularly in instances were security is a sensitive issue. “Radio-based solutions were considered for the biometric security network deployment at Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan,” says Carl Cagliarini, director of business development for EMEA at fSONA Systems. “But in the end they went for FSO. Of particular concern was that intruders cannot be easily detected with radio and could be miles away. With FSO, intrusion is immediately detected and the intruder must be within the line of sight path,” he adds. While the strengths of FSO can easily be summarised as high bandwidth, short deployment time, good price to performance ratio and sturdy security; its limitations are also apparent. The most obvious of these is that it needs a clear line of sight. This limits its utility in built-up areas, where radio-based wireless is a better option as it can work around obstacles. It is this reason, more than any other that ensures that FSO will never reach the mainstream market. Perhaps of more concern to those that have deployed FSO is its reliability. The FSO beam is affected by wet and foggy weather conditions and even though the climate in many arid areas of the Middle East is among the best locations for FSO in the world, it still falls short of complete availability. “FSO devices fail to work when there is thick fog during the start and receding months of winter in this country [United Arab Emirates],” says Guha. “Based on our experience for the past two and a half years, we think the total downtime comes to about 50 to 70 hours per year, giving it an availability of 99.2 to 99.4%,” he adds. Guha recommends that companies investing in FSO should also invest in a back-up link with a fast converging routing protocol to ensure an acceptable level of availability. Dubai Municipality uses a leased line link as a back-up to its FSO connections. Although some companies claims to have FSO solutions that will work up to 4km, most observers agree that FSO solutions work best at ranges of 2km or less. This short range is another factor that severely limits the situations where FSO can prove itself useful to enterprises and service providers. “I think this is a good technology where the distance does not exceed 1.5-2km,” says Guha. “Though most of the devices are available in ‘long-reach’ options I feel that going beyond 2km may create alignment issues when there are strong winds or sandstorms,” he adds. That said, FSO vendor Omnilux has developed a free space optical solution that uses a meshed architecture in an attempt to overcome range difficulties. With the signal hopping from one station to the next, this could make FSO more viable for longer range backhaul functions. Despite its limitations, FSO has established itself as a valued niche technology for many enterprises and service providers. In situations where a fixed infrastructure is either unavailable, too costly or would take too long to provision, FSO can provide a short range, high bandwidth alternative. It can also be utilised as a redundant back up to fixed services for critical links. Furthermore, the uptake of FSO solutions is continuing with the Dubai Municipality planning to use the technology for the third leg of the triangle in its Ramool campus area network. Further recent wins for the industry also include fSONA signing Banque Libano-Francaise in Lebanon, PAV providing an FSO Gigabit link to Bahrain Petroleum and LaserBit completing a project at the Al Jouf Agricultural Farm in Saudi Arabia. While these wins are encouraging for the business, a telling sign of the difficulties that FSO is facing is illustrated by the top speed utilised. Like fibre, it can theoretically be used to provide up to 40Gbyte/s of bandwidth. However, a company needing this bandwidth is likely to be aggregating lots of traffic, therefore availability will be a priority. FSO, with its susceptibility to weather changes cannot provide this. “Creating a 10Gbyte/s or 160Gbyte/s FSO system does not make economic sense,” says Terebeam’s Saifullah. “It is unlikely that many users would put critical backhaul services on to a marginally reliable FSO system. While the technique of transmitting light over fibre is very similar to transmitting light through the air, the crucial difference is that the fibre optic cable is a stable, consistent medium not affected by atmospheric conditions,” he adds. In the light of FSO’s inherent technical shortcomings and limited economic prospects, FSO is likely to remain a niche solution, unless FSO vendors can re-think the econimics of the technology. The challenge is making the transition from a niche technology in a niche market to a mainstream market where FSO becomes a commodity. Partnerships with heavyweight networking and telephony vendors are certain to be very important in the future of FSO. Alliances have already been formed between FSO vendors and telecommunications vendors, with fSONA’s tie up with Alcatel and LightPointe’s deal with Huawei two good examples. These moves are likely to be mutually beneficial as it gives FSO vendors the added reach associated with these larger vendors, while it fills an important niche for the likes of Alcatel and Huawei who strive to offer end-to-end telecommunications solutions. “Strategic alliances are extremely important, because the customers primarily are not interested in FSO as a technology,” says LaserBit’s Koenig. “Instead they would like to see it as a solution for their communications needs. Therefore co-operating with networking and telephony vendors is going to play a more and more important role in the FSO business,” he adds.||**||

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