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.
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.
Priore is the first to admit that a 10 Mbps FSO link to service the 10
customers he was eventually able to sign up amounts to serious overkill. He
could probably service hundreds of subscribers with that kind of bandwidth, he
“But we had these units [the FSO transmitters] already so I figured we might
as well use them,” says Priore. “It’s just so fast and so slick. You set them
up, turn them on and don’t worry about them anymore. About the worst thing is
that you have to come and clean the lenses once in a while.”
He hopes eventually to generate more revenue from the existing FSO link and
also to bring a second set of transmitters he bought out of moth balls.
“It’s a lot of money [for the transmitters],” Priore concedes. “But in the
right application it can pay for itself in no time. That would be anywhere you
need to carry secure, high-bandwidth data traffic over a short distance and the
only other way to do it is to use a telco line and pay the tariffs. It’s
especially useful if you need it up quick.”
Priore is not the only entrepreneur in British Columbia, Canada’s mountainous
west-coast province, to see the possibilities of FSO for ISPs. Robert Lanz,
director of business development at Vancouver-based Lasercom
Telecommunications Ltd., recently helped launch this start-up devoted to
providing services using FSO.
Today, says Lanz, the real market for FSO is 100 Mbps and higher links, which
puts the technology into an even more rarified realm. The capital cost of
equipment for a single 100 Mbps FSO link is approximately $15,000 to
$17,000that’s for two laser transmitters and related equipment.
“I think presently, the marketplace is not quite ready to simply go and make
a substantial commitment to this technology or to a specific manufacturer,” Lanz
says. “So we’ve taken that upon ourselves. We essentially carry that risk and
provide the service to our customers.” Lasercom currently uses equipment from
His company is targeting competitive carriers in Canada that also offer ISP
services, such as financially troubled Group Telecom, as well as pure-play ISPs. They need
a way to provide very high-speed links to off-net customers both for LAN
extensions and broadband Internet connectivity.
The market is ripe, Lanz believes. “Right now in North America, you’ve got
about 5 percent of commercial buildings on some sort of high-speed local
network,” he notes. “But 75 percent of [the rest] are within one mile of
[carriers’ fiber] networks.”
Not many enterprises need a 100-Mbps connection to the Internet all to
themselves, Lanz concedes, but there are some. One of his firm’s first customers
was a large consumer software developer with offices in California and
When a team of developers moved from the company’s California facility to
Vancouver, they needed very high speed connectivity back to California through
an Internet tunnel. Group Telecom, its local telecom service provider in
Vancouver, couldn’t provide the link because the software developer’s building
was not yet connected to GT’s fiber grid.
“We had discussions about [this customer with GT] and said, ‘Why not use free
space optical?’,” Lanz relates. “Instead of getting connected four or six months
later [when the GT fiber link was built], we could set it up in four days. We
did and it’s been bullet-proof ever since, delivering guaranteed connectivity,
Quite aside from faster provisioningwhich can often be a critical factor
the Lasercom service is also cheaper than the carrier could offer. Lanz says
the typical tariff for a 100 Mbps service from a wireline carrier is $4,000 per
month. He can reduce that by a third or more, typically to $3,000 or less.
In the short and medium terms, Lanz sees the main requirement in the market
being for temporary or redundant linksto back up a wireline service. Where it’s
being used for the former, many customers insist on RF back-up. Most in North
America at least are still suspicious of FSO’s fog attenuation and range
issuesespecially in markets such as the Pacific Northwest that are in fact
subject to heavy fog.
As a result, many FSO systems come with integral 60 GHz back-up systems to
which they automatically “fail over” in the event of an outage with the FSO
system. Another option is to add RF backup. Lasercom’s software developer client
didn’t need this, however, since its building was within 1,000 feet of a GT POP.
“The distance we’re talking about between these two locations was not great
enough to worry about it being effected by fog,” Lanz explains. “You don’t see
any effect on transmission capability except in situations when you can’t see
the other building. At 1,000 feet, even in heavy fog, you can still see the
In the longer term, as the market comes to better understand the capabilities
and limitations of FSO, Lanz believes it can evolve into a permanent solution in
many places. In European countries such as Sweden, carriers are already using
FSO for permanent links. “There are thousands of these systems in place in
Europe,” he says.
While Lasercom’s primary target market is carriers, and the primary
application is LAN extensions, there are applications for Tier 2 pure-play ISPs,
he insistsespecially in secondary markets that do not have the same penetration
of fiber as larger centers.
Nor does it have to be a big customer that needs a mammoth pipe into the
Internet. An ISP could use FSO to get to a commercial building, bypassing the
LEC, and then distribute to various tenants within using twisted pair copper
wiring and Very high speed DSL (VDSL) technology, Lanz
Is FSO the greatest thing since sliced bread, a high-capacity networking
silver bullet? Clearly not. But it’s wireless, it’s license-exempt, it works and
in some situations, it may be just what the doctor ordered. That makes FSO well
worth looking into.
Reprinted from ISP-Planet.