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Lasers hit the spot when wires can't cut it

Laser technology is gaining momentum as an effective way to provide high-bandwidth wireless networking capability over short distances.

Companies looking for cost-effective ways to network nearby buildings may want to consider lasers. Despite seeming unconventional, the high-bandwidth technology is reliable over short distances and has been gaining momentum in the IT industry.

Wireless laser communications, also known as free space optics, use a low-intensity laser beam to transmit data between two points. The light transmits data in pulses, just like a fiber-optic connection. But with this approach, there are no costly lines to lay, no ditches to dig and no spectrum licenses to deal with, and a connection can never be cut by a stray backhoe.

In 2000, laser communications was a $100 million market, said Chris Kozup, a senior analyst with Stamford, Conn.-based research firm Meta Group. Though there has been talk of creating a mesh of metropolitan free space optical networks, as well as other talk of telecommunications networks using the technology for last-mile connectivity, these efforts have never taken off, he said.

One of the reasons for this is that lasers lose much of their reach in fog. Gordon Tubbs, assistant director of the broadcast and communications division at Tokyo-based Canon Inc., which is a leading manufacturer of free space optical systems, said that in fog, a laser will usually travel only about twice as far the human eye can see. In a city that is blanketed in fog most days of the year, like San Francisco, the technology becomes impractical for long-distance connections.

But in the meantime, businesses are seeing the value of this technology as a backup or primary connection between nearby corporate buildings, Tubbs said.

Security is not a problem, since the point-to-point laser beam does not broadcast to a wide area like a wireless LAN. Instead, it shoots a concentrated beam of light from one point to another.

Julio Valdes, a network engineer with Freehold, N.J., integrator Computer Resource Technologies Inc., said that he recently deployed a system at the Metuchen Savings Bank in Metuchen, N.J.

The bank acquired a third building across the street from its two existing structures. It wanted to connect this building to its network. But the project would have required the bank to add additional routers and WAN connectivity.

Valdes said that, with that type of connection, the additional building would have been considered a separate branch from its existing structures -- essentially a remote office -- so it would have had to purchase additional server software licenses to avoid breaking licensing rules.

Instead, he linked the building to each of the two existing structures using a laser. By connecting it in this manner, he made the new building part of the existing network. He only needed to upgrade from layer 2 to layer 3 switches, and he did not have to invest in additional infrastructure. The building became part of the existing network, so no new software licenses were required either, he said.

The structures are all less than 500 feet from one another, and the lasers have worked without a problem, he said.

Eric Caddenhead, director of IT infrastructure for Philips Medical Systems, Milpitas, Calif., had a similarly positive experience. He used lasers to network between two buildings that were 1,000 feet apart.

He monitors the link using Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) and has had little trouble with it since the installation. He has been using the link at 100 Mbps, and he said that he can increase the bandwidth if necessary.

If the company were to expand to additional sites, he said, he'd certainly consider linking them with lasers.

An average laser system costs between $20,000 and $60,000.

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