Talking at light-speed in Baltimore

Engineers' expo on new fiber optics attracts thousands

Telecommunications

March 08, 2000|By Mark Ribbing | Mark Ribbing,SUN STAFF

One of the nation's hottest technology industries is having a convention downtown this week, clogging hotels and filling sidewalks with stock-enriched engineers and salespeople.

The Optical Fiber Communication Conference, which runs through Friday at the Baltimore Convention Center, is one of the biggest gatherings of the people and products behind a technology that many experts believe will significantly alter the way people work and communicate.

That technology is optical communication, in which Internet messages and phone calls are sent as packets of light along fiber-optic lines. This greatly increases the speed at which messages are sent, increases the quantity of communications that a single line can handle and eliminates the need for the costly electrical regenerators now used to refresh communications signals as they zip along networks.

A fully optical communications system is still perhaps a decade away, but the technology is already having an enormous effect. According to Maribel Lopez at Forrester Research Inc., the current estimate is that a single fiber can now send all of the data at the Library of Congress across the United States in 100 milliseconds.

The convention was abuzz yesterday with talk about how quickly optical communications are evolving -- and how steeply optical-company shares have been rising on Wall Street. Since their first day of trading Oct. 21, shares of Sycamore Networks Inc. of Chelmsford, Mass., have risen nearly fourteen-fold. Linthicum-based Ciena Corp., the most prominent Maryland firm in the industry, has seen its stock value quintuple in the same period.

The excitement about optics has translated into increased attendance at the Optical Fiber Communication Conference. The event drew 10,000 visitors last year in San Diego and is expected to pull in more than 15,000 this year.

One of the conference chairmen, Rajiv Ramaswami, acknowledged that this upsurge has had its downside -- namely, a run on downtown hotel rooms.

"When we selected Baltimore several years ago for the conference, no one could have anticipated this growth," he said.

The event is not exactly geared toward a general audience; this convention is known within the industry as an engineers' show. The convention schedule is dominated by seminars that only a professional techie could love: "Micromachined polarization-state controller and its application to polarization-mode dispersion compensation" was the title of a typical tutorial.

Similarly, the huge exhibit floor, where 475 companies have put up booths on 121,000 square feet of space, is decidedly short on the carnival-like diversions that show up at some technology shows. Here, the equipment is the star, with fiber-optic cables and circuit boards displayed in glass cases like jewelry.

One of the most elaborate booths was that of Corning Inc. of Corning, N.Y., which showed off spools of its glistening optical fiber.

"This show is very, very important to Corning and to the industry as a whole," said John E. Knight, Corning's marketing systems director. "This is probably one of the top technical shows in the industry."

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