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Guarded Optimism Reigns At Fiber-optic Industry's Key Event

At the annual OFC conference in late February, members of a mildly optimistic fiber-optic industry gathered in Los Angeles to discuss the latest developments in what could be the start of a recovery for the depressed sector. Michael Hatcher reports.
Is the doom and gloom over? Maybe. The mood at this year s Optical Fiber Communication (OFC) conference in Los Angeles might have been better than that of the last three years, but there is still a long way to go before the current slight upswing becomes a genuine return to health.

OFC is traditionally a setting for market overviews, and this year was no exception. At the Optical Society of America s Photonics and Telecommunications Executive Forum, guarded optimism was the overriding theme. John Ryan, the founder of US analyst company RHK, said that he expected growth in optical components this year, singling out storage-area network applications as a promising opportunity (see Optical components set for growth , next page).

At this year s event, silicon heavyweight Intel signaled its intentions with the relaunch of a tunable laser transceiver - technology that it acquired from New Focus in 2002. Intel says that its competitively priced module will displace rival fixed-wavelength transceivers. In fact, the re-emergence of tunable lasers was a strong theme in Los Angeles, with Bookham Technology, JDS Uniphase, NTT Electronics, Avanex and Santur all detailing either technological developments or new products. And out of the ashes of the Swedish company Altitun has emerged a new fabless venture called Syntune, which has developed a novel tunable laser chip design.

Tunable transceiversIntel and Bookham both appear to believe that the market for tunable lasers will return this year. Intel says that its product, which it claims is the first telecom-grade transceiver capable of tuning across all 80 channels of the C-band (1530-1565 nm), will be available in production quantities in the second half of this year. Craig Thompson, Intel s marketing director for the optical platform division, says that at $7000, the transceiver is priced aggressively. "In volume orders, we expect the new transceiver to be priced equivalent to today s fixed wavelength transceivers," he said. "We expect that full C-band tunable transceivers will completely displace single-channel devices." Intel says that its transceiver is versatile enough to be deployed in long-haul, extended long-haul, regional or metro dense wavelength-division multiplexing networks.

Although largely based on the tunable transceiver intellectual property that it acquired from New Focus for $50 million, the Intel transceiver does feature one key difference: the tuning mechanism is now controlled thermally, rather than mechanically. The company told Compound Semiconductor that the transceiver is currently sampling, although it has not yet gained Telcordia qualification. Volkmar Kaufmann, Intel s marketing manager for optical products in Europe, said that there was strong interest in the transceiver at OFC, and that the mood in general at the show was more optimistic than last year.

According to Kaufmann, there are now signs of more serious demand and project build-outs, particularly in metro and access networks. He says that a primary reason for this is the recently improved financial picture at the carrier level of the industry.

JDS Uniphase (JDSU) was another big components player to flag up its tunable offerings at the event. Among a raft of new products, it launched what it claims is the industry s first integrated fully tunable laser modulator. JDSU uses lasers from Fremont-based Santur Corporation in its transceivers, and the same company announced a new supply agreement with Opnext at OFC. Santur will provide lasers for Opnext s full C-band tunable transceivers and other subsystems in the TRV product family.

Bookham s novel laser structureBookham also launched a new tunable product in Los Angeles - a 2.5 Gbit/s directly modulated laser that is temperature-tunable over eight adjacent channels and has a 360 km reach. Bookham claims this to be a record range for such a laser, and says that it can now mount a serious challenge to the electro-absorption modulators that currently dominate over this transmission range.

As well as this new product, Bookham revealed details of its latest work towards producing a full C-band tunable laser. Its monolithic design integrates a digital supermode DBR (DS-DBR) laser with a semiconductor optical amplifier (SOA). According to Bookham s senior device engineer Dave Robbins, the surface-ridge InP laser is fabricated and packaged just like a normal laser chip, and is production-scalable.

The DS-DBR/SOA laser has five main sections. The rear grating is one of the key elements of the design, and it contains a phase grating reflector that is written using an electron-beam source. The electron-beam facility at its Caswell location is a key advantage that Bookham has over its rivals, allowing very-high-resolution gratings to be written into its laser structures. The front grating design, which Bookham says is unique, is the key to the tuning mechanism. When activated electrically, its chirped grating structure selects one of the supermode reflection peaks created by the rear phase grating. The supermode that is selected depends on which contact receives current, rather than on the magnitude of the current. Bookham says that this mechanism results in excellent power uniformity, since there is very little current-induced absorption within the device.

Bookham s structure is said to produce over 40 mW ex-facet power in the free-running condition. The integrated SOA runs at a high input power and low gain (3-6 dB) as a result, and the SOA section is only 300 µm in length. To prevent injection of an amplified return wave into the DS-DBR, which might disrupt the tuning characteristics, the structure includes an angled output facet.

Syntune s tunable chipYet another tunable laser offering at OFC was a modulated grating Y-branch device from InP device specialist Syntune, a fabless company based in Kista, Sweden (see diagram). Syntune was launched in January 2003 by executives formerly at Altitun, which was also based in Kista. Syntune says that its design, which is based on intellectual property jointly owned by Belgium-based IMEC and Ghent University, and Gayton Photonics in the UK, is highly manufacturable, allowing outsourcing of chip manufacture. The InP/InGaAsP buried heterostructure device features a 400 µm MQW section that is butt-joined to the passive sections made in a 0.35 µm thick InGaAsP layer. Syntune says that the manufacturing process is essentially the same as that for a standard DBR laser, with five MOVPE steps.

Debut for long-wavelength VCSELsA number of developments in VCSELs were also announced in Los Angeles. For example, Infineon, whose fiber-optic products group is in the process of being spun out into a separate company, demonstrated its 1310 nm VCSEL, which supports data rates of up to 10 Gbit/s. The modules are targeted at Fibre Channel, 10 Gbit Ethernet and SDH/SONET applications and transmission distances of up to 10 km.

For short-range applications, Infineon also introduced a new 850 nm VCSEL for 2.5 Gbit/s datacom via Fibre Channel and Ethernet protocols. Optical Communication Products (OCP) said that its engineers had also produced long-wavelength VCSELs suitable for mass-manufacture and commercialization. The 1300 nm devices feature a peak output power of 3 mW at room temperature and 1.2 mW at 90 ºC.

Further consolidation expectedThe assortment of tunable lasers and technologies on offer at OFC was another reminder that, whatever the industry s efforts to consolidate over the past couple of years, there are still too many suppliers in this crowded market. With optical component and module suppliers still flooding the industry, further consolidation seems inevitable. Tom Hausken, director of optical components at US analyst firm Strategies Unlimited, was at the show and he certainly thinks so. "There are still a good 40 familiar names with multiple mainstream products," said Hausken. "There are a lot of segments, so each company only sees a few competitors when it looks around. There has been a lot of internal consolidation, so each supplier thinks that now they have a good business plan as growth returns. It s not clear whether there will be enough business to satisfy very many."

Hausken does not expect to see any of the remaining major players bailing out of the industry, although Infineon s fiber-optic products group and OCP are currently both up for sale. He believes that the most obvious segment in need of consolidation now is at the transmitter laser/transceiver level. "This year will be better but, ironically, some suppliers will have to face some tough decisions, extending into 2005," said Hausken. "As orders go up, some suppliers will be left out in the cold, or will have a hard time making a profit or keeping their customers happy. I don t know what the line-up will be in two to three years, but I am certain that it will be very different."

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