Cable firm banking on new technology

Small company's officials say cutting technique will minimize impact on bay

August 10, 2002|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

With about a dozen full-time workers and its founder as its key investor, ClearStream Communications Inc. has spent more than two years collecting data on the environmental resources in the Chesapeake Bay.

Now - if the company, which was started in 2000, can get the funding and approval it needs to move forward - ClearStream hopes to drag a small apparatus along the floor of the bay, slicing into the ground and burying a pencil-thin piece of cable inside.

"Our focus is to deliver high-capacity services, and the way we're going to do it is focusing on deploying ourselves on inland waterways," said Frank Petro, ClearStream's chief executive officer.

Petro, who joined the company at the beginning of the year to help commercialize the technology, said what makes this network different is that it will be accessible to customers who typically cannot get high-capacity bandwidth or can get it only at a very high price.

ClearStream's network, if built, would run underwater from Baltimore to Norfolk, Va., and would be the first U.S. deployment of such a technology, Petro said, adding that there have been river-based systems in Scandinavia, France and South America.

But several Anne Arundel County officials learned of the plans only this week and were concerned that the project hadn't been brought to their attention earlier. They also worried about building a fiber-optic network in the middle of a telecom slump and about the environmental impact of the project.

The company said its method of burying the cable is more environmentally sound and protects the fibers from breaking.

Sam Greenholtz, a senior analyst for Communications Industry Researchers Inc., said there are already several cables across both the Chesapeake Bay and the Inner Harbor in Baltimore. "There's a lot of marine cable around, so it's not a new phenomenon at all," he said.

Several other analysts contacted yesterday said they had never heard of ClearStream, which does not have a Web site. And many pointed out that now is a very tough time to break into the telecommunications industry: Funding is hard to come by, and many businesses are struggling to stay afloat.

Mark Bieberich, a senior analyst at the Yankee Group in Boston, said there are still some chances for companies to find funding if they have a specialized technology.

However, he added, "the bad news for them is that much of the core fiber-optic transmission network that's in place today is overbuilt. It is over-engineered. There is a glut of fiber-optic cable. There is a glut of bandwidth."

ClearStream is hoping to hook its 310-mile network up to hospitals, universities and local businesses.

ClearStream was founded by Harold E. Dittmer after he saw similar applications overseas and decided that the approach could work in the United States.

If plans for the Baltimore-Washington area network are approved, the company hopes to start work about a year from now, said Henning Ottsen, vice president of engineering for ClearStream.

ClearStream would not disclose the cost of the project, but here's how it would work:

A ship about the size of a personal fishing boat would drop into the water a machine to lay the cable. The machine would cut a path about 4 to 6 inches wide and 1 1/2 to 10 feet deep, dropping the cable into the channel as it goes.

The company said the hole would be so small that it will close itself as dirt moves around the floor of the bay, and it would be laid along a route that avoids environmentally sensitive areas such as oyster beds and underwater vegetation. If the line breaks, a diver could repair it.

If the cable comes to a shipping channel or area with environmental obstacles, the company said, it would drill a 1-inch hole 100 to 200 feet under the obstacle and snake the cable through that hole.

"We're putting in these incision devices that basically just slip through the sediment. There's no trenching, there's no plowing, and that's been a focus of ours," Ottsen said.

Sun researcher Jean Packard contributed to this article.

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