Data thirst a boon to fiber optics

Information: Demands on telecommunications industry create opportunities for Maryland companies.

January 21, 2001|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

This is a planet of data gluttons. The latest estimates show Internet traffic - everything from e-mail to photos to full-length Hollywood films - is doubling every 100 days or so.

And the thought of this tidal wave of ones and zeroes makes people such as Jeff Ferry smile.

Ferry heads the marketing department at Yafo Networks Inc., a closely watched start-up in Hanover that makes gear for optical communications networks.

The use of light to transmit voice, video and data over hair-thin glass fibers has become the backbone of the Internet during the past decade. It's the technology AT&T, MCI WorldCom and others are leaning on these days to satisfy their customer's growing demand for data.

Start-ups such as Yafo that provide this technology, meanwhile, are fast becoming the backbone of Maryland's high-tech economy in the new millennium.

Yafo, with 100 employees, is opening a new manufacturing plant in Columbia in the coming months and growing fast. "We're hiring people every month," Ferry said.

Of course, optics isn't the only hot number in telecom these days. Wireless firms such as Aether Systems in Owings Mills have also been on a tear.

Using its huge stock-fueled war chest, for example, Aether snapped up no fewer than nine companies last year. Look for more of the same in 2001, analysts say.

"They are the 500-pound gorilla in that space," said Andy Jones at Boulder Ventures, a venture-capital firm in Owings Mills. "I really put them down as one to watch. We're very fortunate to have them in the state."

But right now, optics is where the action is in Maryland, Jones said.

Despite widespread turbulence in tech stocks in 2000, analysts say, optics companies should continue to draw the attention of venture capitalists, who have all but given up on e-commerce ideas.

"These guys sell a real product that solves a real customer need. It's not like trying to make a penny on online banner ads," noted William Heflin, a managing partner at Kenetic Ventures in Chevy Chase.

Spending on optical equipment is forecast to grow 38 percent to $29 billion in 2001, according to RHK Inc., a telecom industry research firm in San Francisco.

While the cooling U.S. economy has caused some analysts to question whether telecom companies will continue to spend big bucks on optical networking gear in the coming years, they may be stuck with the bill whether they like it or not.

That's because many telecom companies are saddled with fiber optics networks that were laid down in the 1980s and early 1990s, aging networks which are buckling under the growing traffic load, he said.

"The good news for the optics industry is a lot of carriers don't have a choice," Jones noted.

The state's optics industry is anchored by pioneers Ciena Corp. in Linthicum and Corvis in Columbia, both of which have proven to be some of the industry's most able innovators.

Ciena helped pioneer a method to radically increase the amount of data a single fiber-optic strand could carry.

The technology, known as dense wavelength division multiplexing, works by separating light into different colors, or wavelengths. (The concept is based on an old chestnut of high-school physics: shining light through a glass prism to break it into its component colors.)

Corvis, started by Ciena founder David Huber, recently invented an all-optical switching technology that the company claims can slash the cost of building a long-distance fiber network by as much as 90 percent-a potentially eye-catching savings for cash-strapped telecom providers.

As more talented optics engineers and managers continue to pour into the region, more companies are following. Trellis Photonics, which makes an optical switching device, moved its headquarters in September from Yokneam, Israel, to Columbia.

Bookham Technologies PLC, a British-based maker of fiber-optic networking technology, announced in December that it will build its North America headquarters in Columbia this year. The move is expected to bring as many as 1,000 new jobs to the region.

While publicly traded companies such as Ciena and Corvis often get most of the attention, a number of privately held start-ups have also been attracting venture capitalists, including Yafo, Codeon Corp. in Columbia, and Seneca Networks in Rockville.

Of course, challenges for Maryland's growing optical sector remain.

Industry Goliaths such as Nortel Networks Corp., Lucent Technologies Inc. and Cisco Systems Inc. continue to make optical communications an extremely competitive industry.

But Maryland companies have already shown they can hold their own.

In December, for example, Ciena plunked down roughly $2 billion in stock for Cyras Systems, a California company that makes optical switches.

From the perspective of many Maryland optics companies, the future looks bright. "I'm pretty confident," Yafo's Ferry said.

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