Not exactly quicker than a ray of light, but optical MEMS will fly

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Aug.1, 2003 – Say the word “communications,” and chances are you’ll think of optical networking. This is mostly due to the staggering drop in earnings over the past couple of years, high-profile bankruptcy filings and countless failed startups that took with them loads of VC money and any remaining faith in the market.

Yet communications encompasses so much more than optical networking. That’s just the wired end of the spectrum. At the other end of the continuum are wireless applications, including cell phones and pagers (and the infrastructure needed to support them) in addition to radar systems and navigational equipment for terrestrial and satellite communications as well as those used by ships and aircraft.

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While it may have been written off for now, optical networking does still hold promise. The search for the elusive “last mile” of networking to homes and businesses is a segment in which laser-based solutions are just emerging. And, of course, there’s the whole specter of radio frequency (RF, or wireless) MEMS.

Is there light at the end of the tunnel for optical networking? Surprisingly enough, 2002 revenues for suppliers of MEMS-based solutions were only slightly off from previous forecasts. However, there are very real questions as to whether those earnings were an anomaly, or a signal that the market is finally ready to move forward with next-generation technology. Earnings for 2003 could be very telling.

Unfortunately, it’s clear that a real upswing will likely take several more years. Even though near-term market conditions are expected to be pretty tough, the long-term prospects for optical networking remain good. While that might seem obvious, sometimes it is hard to keep that in mind, particularly given the steep, prolonged nature of the downturn experience by this sector and the number of VCs who are no longer willing to stick it out.

While the whole premise of optical networking is to offer the bandwidth necessary to accommodate the ever-increasing demand for voice, data and video, a potentially significant bottleneck remains in what is referred to as the “last mile.” That is, connecting buildings and homes to the backbone.

Traditional connectivity solutions (i.e. copper wires and coaxial cables) don’t really have the capability to carry bandwidth-intensive services, and the use of fiber optics is prohibitively expensive. As a result, a number of nonfiber-optic technologies are being investigated, including a laser-based system called Free-Space Optics (FSO).

FSO is based on the use of low-power infrared lasers that are invisible and harmless to the human eye. To increase the distance between links, large diameter transmitting lenses are used to reduce beam spread. As the beam is narrowed, minute variations caused by building sway, and the thermal expansion and contraction of materials, make it necessary to use active tracking systems. Here, optical MEMS could be used to correct for these effects.

A number of companies are already using MEMS for beam steering in FSO, and both LightPointe and CiDRA Corp. have integrated Texas Instruments’ micromirror-based Digital Light Processing  (DLP) technology into their equipment. It’s also possible that GalayOr’s optical motherboard might someday be suitable as a transceiver in such a system.

Perhaps the brightest spot at the moment within the communications market is RF MEMS. Although most companies involved in its development are very focused on cell phones, others are looking at military, space and aerospace applications, as well as Local Multipoint Distribution Services (LMDS) transceivers (which use microwave radios to transmit information) and the automotive market.

While much of the attention to date has been on the development of switches and relays, the fact of the matter is that the market has already taken off for other discretes — particularly resonators and resonator-based components.

Perhaps the biggest success story to date comes from Agilent Technologies. Since its commercial debut in early 2001, Agilent’s Film Bulk Acoustic Resonator (FBAR) duplexer has been designed into more than 40 mobile handset platforms, and has also been integrated into expansion cards for personal digital assistants and laptops. In February 2003, the company announced that it had shipped its 10 millionth duplexer.

But Agilent isn’t alone. At about the same time, ASULAB (the research and development laboratory of the Swatch Group) developed and introduced AT-cut resonators (fabricated via bulk micromachining processes), which have been marketed by a Swiss company called Micro Crystal for at least a year.

Next in line appears to be Discera, which in early June began sampling its first device — the MRO-100 micro-oscillator. Available as both a discrete and integrated chipset, it is based on Discera’s resonator technology. Beyond the communications market, computing and consumer end-uses are also promising high-volume applications for this device; and an intriguing possibility is RFID (wireless identification) tags. Discera’s lead investor is Ardesta LLC, parent company of Small Times Media.

The initial response to RF MEMS clearly indicates that this device category is off to a great start. There’s no question that this segment alone is already having a tremendous impact in terms of boosting unit shipments of MEMS overall.

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