March 26, 2003 3:45 PM PST
Xerox: Let everyone have fiber
Researchers at Xerox's Wilson Center for Research and Technology announced Wednesday that they have created a silicon chip about the size of a fingertip that contains switches and waveguides for fiber-optic communication.
Ideally, network equipment manufacturers will be able to build relatively inexpensive boxes with the chip that can effectively split up the channels delivered by a standard fiber-optic line and deliver bandwidth to a large number of individuals.
Such a process would make the proverbial last mile both shorter and cheaper, according to Xerox.
"It would be very expensive to have a dedicated optical fiber line into your home," said Joel Kubby, a technical manager at Xerox's Webster, New York-based lab. "What we are trying to do is democratize fiber."
The new chip comes amid hopes of renewed investment in fiber-optic networks as a result of revised phone competition rules from the Federal Communications Commission in February. The agency ruled that Baby Bells are not required to share new optical networks with competitors.
Reducing the cost of manufacturing optical equipment is one of the chief concerns in the communications industry right now, and many, including Xerox, are looking at how technology from the semiconductor industry can be used to solve this problem.
In optical communications, data is carried on photons of light, which can be faster and more energy-efficient than trading data across electrical wires, the medium of transmission used in chips and computers.
Optical devices, however, have historically been fairly expensive. Many executives in the industry say that designing equipment remains a "black art" that defies easy mass production. Electrical devices depend on silicon chips, which get cheaper and more powerful by the day.
In Xerox's chip, silicon serves to house optical channels. The chip, technically a micro-electromechanical system (MEMS) contains an array of tiny fibers. Signals from the main fiber are separated out with a de-multiplexer, and then routed accordingly through these paths. According to Xerox, the development is a breakthrough because it successfully combines optical MEMS and planar light circuits on a single chip.
This "is a very attractive development," said Lawrence Gasman, CIR president and director for Optical Components Research. "It makes a lot of sense to combine micro-electronic and micro-optical functions on the same piece of silicon. The kinds of things that can be achieved are new and interesting."
However, it's also not easy. Most projects to date have collapsed, said Gasman, who added that Xerox is likely overstating the importance of its new component in bringing fiber optics to the home and small businesses in the near future.
"This is not a revolution, but more a stage along the road," he said. "Labor costs in deploying fiber are a far bigger factor than components costs."
Other companies are looking at more novel solutions to the last-mile problem. Cambridge, England's QuantumBeam is looking at ways of connecting buildings to fiber through free-space optics, or optical signals that travel in the air between rooftop receivers. Although promising, fog can create problems, executives have said.
Researchers at other companies are also looking at ways to convert optical signals into electrical signals, and then back to optical signals. This method lets companies cut costs by replacing optical equipment for interim transmissions with silicon.
Optical-electrical-optical conversions as used in other systems "are very expensive to do," said Kubby.
Xerox does not plan to market or manufacture the chip. Instead, it plans to license it. Although prototypes have been developed, the lab will likely tune it for better performance over the next year. Potential licensees will also likely conduct their own performance testing, he added.
News.com's Evan Hansen contributed to this report.