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Xerox Promises Cheap Fiber Optics to the Home

If Internet traffic runs on a superhighway, why is it that the off ramps to homes and small businesses still feel like dirt roads?

That is the question posed by researchers at Xerox . The answer, the Rochester, N.Y.-based company's R&D lab said Wednesday, is a new switching technology it's developed that could bring inexpensive, high-capacity fiber optics directly to businesses and even homes for the first time.

"Optical networks based on our technology could go way beyond delivering on-demand DVD-quality videos in homes," said Joel Kubby, a technical manager at Xerox's Wilson Center for Research and Technology in Webster, N.Y.

The technology is a combination of a Optical MEMS (Micro Electro-Mechanical Systems) photonic switch with planar light circuits on a single silicon chip. The switch can ramp up its transfer speeds by acting like a Reconfigurable Optical Add/Drop Multiplexer (R-OADM), a routing device that's commonly used today but is 10 to 100 times as large and fairly expensive.

Most of the optical networking equipment on the market must switch from the optical to the electronic domain. Xerox says its technology allows for switching in the all-optical domain because it controls the flow of light rather than the flow of electrons.

The process is called "waveguides"; very small conductors of light, about 5 to 6 microns or 1/10 the thickness of a human hair. Xerox says its MEMS waveguide shuttle acts like a miniature train track switch for the fine waveguides, avoiding the problems of earlier, mirror-based MEMS switches.

The MEMS switches and waveguides are made together on a single crystal silicon wafer using widely available semiconductor processing equipment. The technique avoids alignment issues and makes it smaller and cheaper to operate than trying to assemble the separate components of Add/Drop Multiplexers.

In addition, the new technology eliminates the need for technicians to make routing changes in the field, ultimately bringing bandwidth to consumers faster.

The new optical switch technology builds on a broadly enabling MEMS fabrication platform developed under a grant provided by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in its Advanced Technology Program. Xerox is the lead partner in the Optical MEMS Manufacturing Consortium, and Kubby is the principal investigator for the consortium's project. Other partners include Palo Alto Research Center, a subsidiary of Xerox; Corning IntelliSense, a MEMS foundry and software company; Microscan, a data acquisition firm; and Coventor, a MEMS software company. Xerox said the partners will now look at ways of developing a manufacturing process for Optical MEMS, which can be used broadly.

At Xerox, Kubby and his team began conducting MEMS research in 1993, Optical MEMS in 1998. Using Optical MEMS, Xerox is working to improve color image quality during the color reproduction process. Optical MEMS devices could eventually eliminate the need for high-cost precision manufacturing of components that stabilize movement in Xerox photoreceptor belts.

Kubby has created a working prototype 8-channel reconfigurable OADM. Xerox said it eventually wants to commercialize this technology through licensing to leading companies in the optical switching market.

The technology may be well worth the investment, say analysts, based on the growth of broadband to homes and small offices.

"Global consumption of OADMs was $101 million in 2001 and will surge to $1.03 billion in 2006," according to Jeff D. Montgomery, chairman and founder of market research firm ElectroniCast Corp. "The most rapid growth is expected in fully reconfigurable devices."