May 6, 2002
By Vince Vittori

Though some of the more self-important telecom technologists would like you to believe they divine their ideas from the heavens above, the founders of AOptix may actually have some evidence to back up that argument.

While working at a Hawaiian observatory, AOptix founders J. Elon "Buzz" Graves and Malcolm Northcott were exploring various ways for astronomers to see further into the universe. Using the complex science of adaptive optics, which uses various means to compensate for optical effects, the two soon realized their research had other applications in the free space optics (FSO) market.

"We've seen a lot of different FSO companies come and go, but we think they've got something pretty unique," said Paul Longhenry, an associate with 3i, one of the investors in AOptix. Others include Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Clearstone Venture Partners and Lehman Brothers.

Like most FSO developers, Campbell, Calif.-based AOptix targets carriers that want to provide high-bandwidth over short spans to buildings without fiber. The AOptix platform has a CPU and software that sit behind the receiving-end antenna. While FSO systems transmit perfect wave fronts, the waves on the receiving end can be distorted by windows and atmosphere.

Scintillation, or the natural dispersion of light, also can diminish the power of the beam and reduce the carrying capacity. Even seemingly minor events such as building sway and people slamming doors in adjacent offices can affect the precise aim needed to make FSO systems work well.

In AOptix's system, waves are "changed" back into their perfect wave front form at the receiving end. The process is similar to adaptive optics' role in observatory telescopes, which need to see through miles of atmospheric layers. "In effect, it fits the glass with a pair of corrective lenses," said Mark Allan, director of sales for AOptix.

The transmitting end sends out a beam significantly more narrow than that of first-generation FSO systems, never getting much wider than 10 inches. "As light propagates through the atmosphere, the light on the receiving end starts to make a speckle pattern," said Lou Pellosi, director of marketing and business development.

AOptix has tested its system with an unnamed carrier in Denver to prove it can handle an OC-192 line through dual-pane windows tinted on both sides, said Chuck Messer, director of customer support. In one instance, the carrier was able to transmit through a window that allowed only 10% of the sun's rays through.

But AOptix is pinning some of its future hopes on the development of the gigabit Ethernet market. Because its system acts as a Layer 1 transport, carriers can stack any protocol on top. AOptix already has proved it can go from OC-3 to OC-192.

Like most FSO developers, though, AOptix anticipates deployment decisions to come down to economics, with most systems being deployed in lower-end optical links that don't stretch more than about 2 km - or about one-177, 832th the distance from the earth to the moon.

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