This Laser Requires No License

By Gerry Blackwell

August 13, 2002

Across North America, ISPs are finding that free space optics (FSO) technology is like 802.11b because it is license free but it has handicaps that restrain its carrier popularity.

Three years ago, flamboyant Canadian AIDS activist Richard Hollingsworth had a novel idea. He wanted to invite people into his home, virtually speaking, to see how an AIDS patient lived and functioned with his family.

Hollingsworth's idea was to set up a kind of reality TV website with multiple streaming video feeds from his home. He approached Randy Priore to help make it happen. Priore is president of Cintek, an ISP in Cranbrook, British Columbia, the small town where Hollingsworth was living.

The problem was that the bandwidth leaving Hollingsworth's home would have to be extreme. He was lucky to live only 1,000 feet from Cintek's nearest POP.

Priore scratched his head and took a look around. He had already been experimenting for some time with pre-standard 2.4 GHz wireless technology, but believed there would be too much chance of interference. He finally hit on a novel solution (for the time): free-space optics (FSO).

FSO is a license-free, point-to-point wireless technology that uses light to transmit digital data in virtually the same way fiber does it. Data speeds range from 10 Mbps to 2.5 Gbps.

FSO's primary benefits are that it's as fast as fiber, but significantly cheaper, and, perhaps most important, it can be set up in days rather than the months it takes to build fiber links because no ground has to be torn up.

It does have limitations, however. It requires strict line of sight and critical alignment of laser beams from the two transmitters. It has a fairly short rangetwo or three miles at mostand the laser beams can be diffracted by dense fog, slowing or cutting a connection.

FSO technology has been around for at least five years, but in a climate of economic recession and extreme skepticism in the telecom sector, the technology's apparent shortcomings (short range, fog attenuation) have kept it from being a complete success.

It doesn't help either that the most prominent vendor companies, TeraBeam, Lightpointe, fSona, Plaintree, and AirFiber are all start-ups, though some well funded.

Still, FSO is slowly finding markets, mainly among carriers, that are beginning to use it to service off-net customers in buildings not yet connected to their fiber grids, and among enterprises looking for telco-free Fast Ethernet LANincluding voice and video-connections between nearby buildings.

There are also applications for ISPs, as Priore discovered. "We selected the Lightpointe equipment because it's not susceptible to interference--that and the fact that it's 10 Mbps, full duplex," Priore says. "It's also super simple to set up. You basically plug it in, turn it on and nothing goes wrong. If you've got good line of sight, there are no issues."

The 10 Mbps FSO system, which cost about $7,000 three and a half years ago, served its purpose admirably, he says, but the Hollingsworth project, which Priore had supported in a spirit of public service (and technological experiment) didn't last. Hollingsworth eventually moved from Cranbrook and the link was disconnected.

One of the beauties of wireless technologies of all kinds, though, is that, unlike cable of any kind, including fiber, infrastructure is completely portable and re-usable. After Hollingsworth decamped, Priore approached a group of apartment owners and small businesses across the street from one of his POPs. Would they be interested in high-speed Internet service?

It would have cost about $1,000 a month in telco services to get what he was offering. Instead, one of the building owners gave Cintek roof rights and the company set up the Lightpointe FSO transmitters to bridge the gap in its network. Then it ran Cat-5 cabling to connect the new customers.

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