By Angela Sutherland
Free space optics (FSO) technology may have started out as a product for niche markets like the military, however, it is starting to make its way into the mainstream of broader markets.
|~|PAV-pIC-2-site-2.jpg|~|“We believe FSO has all the hallmarks of a mainstream technology. It has proved itself as a high availability, robust technology and is now starting to be adopted tier one operators.” Chris Emerson, managing director for PAV Data Systems.|~|Free space optics (FSO) technology may have started out as a product for niche markets like the military, however, it is starting to make its way into the mainstream of broader markets. Enterprises are deploying FSO-based products because they are considered to deliver cost-effective optical wireless connectivity and an immediate return-on-investment (ROI).
With the Middle East’s growing telecommunications sector due to deregulation and convergence, the need for greater bandwidth in the enterprise and telecoms sectors is driving the demand for FSO. Like fibre optic cable, the technology uses laser light to transmit a digital signal between two transceivers. However, unlike fibre, the laser light is transmitted through the air instead of through a glass strand. In order for the digital signal to be transmitted and received, there must be clear line of sight between each FSO unit. There should be no obstructions such as trees or buildings between the transceiver units.
One organisation that has been quick to take advantage of FSO is 2Connect Bahrain. The emerging carrier has deployed LightPointe’s FlightStrata 100 XA outdoor, point-to-point wireless links as part of a metropolitan Ethernet mesh network throughout the capital city of Manama. 2Connect has installed eight FlightStrata 100 XA links to provide local businesses with secure, high-capacity voice, data and video communications while ensuring “five nines” carrier-class network availability under harsh environmental conditions. 2Connect Bahrain is the first carrier to roll out the enhanced network services following the deregulation of the country’s telecommunications industry in 2004.
To speed its network build-out, 2Connect began rolling out its own high-speed infrastructure in 2005, bypassing the fibre network of the incumbent carrier, Bahrain Telecommunications Company (Batelco).
A variety of bandwidth-intensive business services are offered by 2Connect, including broadband data, telephony, virtual private networking and video conferencing. “The FlightStrata 100XA is ideal for expediting delivery of high-speed, reliable network services without incurring substantial infrastructure costs or recurring fixed-line access fees,” says Fahad Al Shirawi, managing director of 2Connect. “The solution also allows us to expand our high-speed network [quickly] as well as more simply and economically than with any other technology—and still pass along significant savings to our customers,” he adds.
The LightPointe links also serve as last-mile access connections to international network circuits.
The telco says it has installed a FlightStrata 100XA to replace three local access lines to international circuits, resulting in significant savings for a financial customer. “Just after two months, the LightPointe link produced a return-on- investment (ROI) by eliminating the expensive monthly leased-line fee,” says AlShirawi.
Another organisation that is utilising FSO technology is Kuwait’s Ministry of Health (MOH). Mid 2005, in partnership with Fsona Systems, Smartlink Telecom and Advanced Technologies Company (ATC), the government body deployed a city-wide high capacity wireless network in order to transport critical data and files generated by computerised axial tomography (CAT) scan images from specialised clinics and hospital campuses. Hospitals processed several thousand CAT scan images every week, however, these images could not be compressed, presenting issues with respect to high-capacity data transportation from one building to another. “Previously the hospital would transfer the images to a CD and courier the images from the clinic to the main hospital. We met with the organisation’s IT department, and after assessing its overall requirements, we discovered that a point-to-point radio solution that had already being proposed was going to creak at the seams with the sheer bandwidth overload,” says Mazen Khatib, general manager for Smartlink Telecom.
“The only real solution was to utilise FSO technology for short to mid range applications, together with high capacity internet protocol (IP) licensed Microwave for the long-haul segments of the network,” he adds. Information economy depends on the transmission of data, voice and multimedia across telecommunication networks. Despite new technologies that enable legacy copper telephone lines to carry information efficiently, optical networks are the ideal medium for ultra high-bandwidth communications and true connectivity. There are two types of optical communications: Fibre optics and FSO. For long-haul network deployments, fibre is ideal. When coupled with new Dense Wavelength Division Multiplex (DWDM) technologies, fibre is capable of carrying information at 40 Gbps (gigabits per second).
However, for making connections over relatively short distances in cities – the "last mile" between the fibre and the metro concentration of end users– fibre and FSO technology often rely on one another for success. FSO-based optical wireless solutions complement fibre optics with considerably less expense, faster deployment and flexible service rollouts in any network topology. Mauritius Commercial Bank (MCB), which has deployed an optical wireless network comprising five Sonabeam systems, says it is experiencing an outstanding performance. “When it came to expanding the network, the bank was required to re-evaluate other communications technologies, however, after a rigorous evaluation process we decided to work with Fsona,” says Patrice Ferriere, general manager for I-Telecom, which managed the project.
“The solution provided superior all weather performance and increased reliability, which was critical for us because our main centres of operation present geographic challenges. They are located several hours by aircraft off the coast line of mainland Africa,” says Ferriere.
While FSO technology has advantages, which include no need for security software upgrades, being immune to radio frequency interference or saturation, and can be deployed behind windows, eliminating the need for rooftop rights for enterprises; it has its share of challenges as well. Since FSO is a line-of-sight technology, which uses invisible beams of light to provide optical bandwidth connections, environmental factors play a critical role in the success of the technology. Optical wireless networks based on FSO technology must be designed to combat changes in the atmosphere. The interconnecting points must be free from physical obstruction and able to see each other.
The primary challenge to FSO-based communications is dense fog. Rain and snow have little effect on FSO technology, but fog is different. Fog is vapor composed of water droplets, which are only a few hundred microns in diameter but can modify light characteristics or completely hinder the passage of light through a combination of absorption, scattering and reflection. The primary answer to counter fog when deploying FSO-based products is through a network design that shortens FSO link distances and adds network redundancies.
LightPointe says its FlightStrata 100XA combines a Fast Ethernet optical link with 5.8GHz unlicensed Radio Frequency (RF) technology, providing built-in redundancy for all weather outdoor wireless networking. “High-speed 100 Mbps, full-duplex connectivity is achieved through a primary optical wireless path. In the event the primary path is broken or temporarily disrupted by harsh environmental conditions, such as dense fog, haze or dust, network traffic is switched instantly to the secondary 72 Mbps RF path to maintain “five nines” availability,” says Bob Preston, chief marketing officer for LightPointe. He says prior to selecting his organisation’s solution, 2Connect factored in environmental considerations because Bahrain has arid desert terrain with near-constant haze and dust.
Chicago-based spokesperson for Panduit, Paul Kopera says rain and snow adversely affect the attenuation characteristics of the transmission medium, limiting ultimate reach and bandwidth. This can limit applicability in large campus environments where dedicated throughput is required at long reach. However, Kopera says the demand for optical wireless network is slowly starting to grow in the Middle East due to its ease of use. “Procurement logistics of traditional cabling systems and availability of the varied skills associated with this type of installation make the relatively simple installation of a FSO solution attractive to developing countries,” notes Kopera.
He believes educating the market about the merits of the technology will also help increase the demand. Routing of a campus fibre backbone can be simplified by the implementation of a line-of–sight (LOS) system; however, this technology is not even under consideration by enterprises because both the implementation and the life cycle costs are either unknown or unavailable to the system architects. “The availability of a simple tool for consultants and designers that allows direct cost comparison against an outside plant fibre backbone system (and other systems such as LOS microwave would be helpful,” he adds. “These systems can be deployed quickly unlike traditional structured cabling, and because they do not use radio waves, customers do not require a radio-frequency license.
In instances where right-of-way is an issue, costs associated with procuring such are not present. These factors combine to deliver lower total-cost-of-ownership in relation to initial installation and ongoing fees.”
Chris Emerson, managing director for PAV Data Systems shares Kopera’s sentiments. He says limited market awareness is indeed hindering the adoption of FSO. There are many organisations in the market place that do not know the technology. “We are constantly amazed at the number of customers who say they have never heard of this technology,” says Emerson. “Although FSO is gaining market awareness, the lack of knowledge about the technology and its potential applications are the main factors stopping end users from utilising it.”
Furthermore, the reliability of the product is also questionable. However, Emerson believes it is a misconception. He says over 85% of FSO faults his organisation attends to are related to cabling or installation issues. “The technology works just fine. It has nothing to do with the reliability of the technology. FSO vendors must insist on partners having the right resources and capabilities to install and support the technology. We regulate our partners by running a certified PAV installer (CPI) programme,” Emerson explains. He says when deployed correctly, FSO like fibre and microwave, will deliver as good if not better availability.
“As with any technology, if enterprises do not install and commission correctly or they ask the technology to perform at the absolute edge of its capabilities, they will encounter problems.” Emerson says bandwidth solutions covering 10Mbps Ethernet, 100 Mbps Ethernet – FET Fast Ethernet, Gigabit Ethernet, ATM155, ATM622, E1 and nxE1 for data, voice and video can be fully integrated over an FSO laser link offering broadband solutions at wireline speeds. This covers 10Base-T, 100Base-Tx and 1000Base-Sx/Lx.
Point-to-point links have been the traditional applications for FSO; however, an increasing number of corporations are installing resilient networks using ring, star or mesh topologies. “Free space optics can provide the high bandwidth network infrastructure, which supports the latest technologies including Wi-Fi and bluetooth as well as the wireless LAN. This enables service providers to supply GSM mobile-based hotspots for wireless IP connections.” FSO can operate over relatively long distances in urban environments for LAN-to-LAN communications, providing office-to-office connections on campus and factory locations where line of sight, LOS, is usually available.
Traditionally, expensive leased lines have been used including costly fixed cabling, licensed microwave or IEEE 802.11 radio systems, which may develop spectrum availability or security issues. “Free space optical networks provide cost effective, license free, high bandwidth, rapidly deployed communications links to overcome these issues.”
As for the technology entering the mainstream of broader markets, vendors say the technology is already there. Panduit’s Kopera cites Canon’s deployment of the LOS optical system as an example. He says Canon had great success with the LOS optical systems during the disaster recovery process of financial institutions after the events of 9/11. “In addition, many medical campuses, which operate under HIPAA guidelines (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), have embraced this technology because cable pathways used for traditional inter-building cabling are getting crowded and the need for backbone re-configuration is growing,” he explains. PAV’s Emerson says FSO is a niche technology across a wide spectrum of markets. He says the demand for the technology in the Middle East’s enterprise sector including the GSM and telecommunication segments of the market is growing rapidly.
“The need to overcome spectrum congestion and achieve a speedy network roll out at a cost effective price in GSM and telecommunications markets positions FSO as a real alternative to more traditional solutions,” Emerson explains. The high bandwidth products available and the capability to provide voice attract operators wishing to deliver broadband and data services over a single FSO broadband link.
At the same time, operators looking to support increasing capacity demands within the wireless backhaul, find the ability to provide connections quickly without the need for spectrum planning or a license. “We believe that FSO has all the hallmarks of a mainstream technology. It has proved itself as a high availability, robust technology and is now starting to be adopted by tier one operators,” Emerson enthuses. ||**||