Lasers to Offer a New Approach to the Last Mile

SAN MATEO (05/08/2000) - Every once in a while, a technology is unleashed that is so intriguing and futuristic that my only response can be a puerile Beavis and Butt-head-esque, "Cool. Heh, heh."

That's what free-space optics did to me two weeks ago. This is a technology that can bring out the geek in any of us. Here is a technology that stands to serve an honest-to-goodness, Internet-inhibiting, bang-your-head-against-a-wall bandwidth problem. And guess how they do it? With lasers.

I told you it was cool.

I had heard about the idea of free-space, or wireless optics, many times, but hadn't really given it much thought until a company called TeraBeam announced a major deal with Lucent last month. Upon looking into it, I realized just how real this technology is and how much potential it has.

TeraBeam Networks Inc. is out to solve the infamous last-mile problem in broadband Internet access. In other words, fiber-optic lines can carry truckloads of data back and forth across the country in seconds flat. But when the data gets to its termination point in a major city, it careens its way through ancient telephone lines on its way to an office building. That is unless the building is already wired for fiber optics, and we all know how common that is.

So TeraBeam takes the data from the fiber-optic lines and shoots lasers around a city, beaming gigabits of data-per-second in through building windows and onto small receivers inside an office. It is essentially the same as sending light through fiber, only TeraBeam is using the air as its conduit.

I'll admit that when I first heard of the technology, I had any number of Star Wars images in my head. Lasers bouncing off of buildings? What if I looked into one? How many birds will get fried? It does leave the mind to wander.

But the lasers used in TeraBeam's solution are merely Class 1, and you could stare into it without any harmful effects. In fact, the laser pointer I use to torture my cat has a Class-3 rating, and it can do serious damage if looked at directly. As for things disrupting the flow of data, such as rain, snow, birds, confetti in New York this October when the Mets win the World Series, or even when buildings sway (and you thought they were stationary) -- the jury is still out to see how well the hub system that TeraBeam uses will hold up. The company claims to have a self-correcting technology that can account for these variables, but only deployment will tell.

But the beauty of free-space optics is that it can be provisioned and set up quickly and cheaply relative to other solutions, such as local multipoint distribution services (LMDS), which require licensing of spectrum and a gigantic antenna to pick up radio waves. TeraBeam claims they will be able to price well below competition, if they want to. Chances are they will not though, because with such a high-end product, they can charge whatever they want.

The question remains, however, whether this will be a temporary measure, to hold us data-hungry users over until everybody has true fiber connections. And how long will that take? Write to me at dan_briody@infoworld.com.

Dan Briody is an InfoWorld editor at large.

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