NEC has made advances in the technology of tunable lasers that will cut the cost of fibre-optic equipment and help communications carriers deliver more efficient communications services, and which will be commercially available by October 2005.
While other companies have previously developed tunable lasers, the one developed by NEC is cost-effective enough to be widely used to replace the functions of many lasers currently used in fibre-optic networks, according to Hiroyuki Yamazaki, principal researcher at NEC's system platforms research laboratories.
"We think we could make the laser for about half the cost of any other competitor, and we want to put it on sale internationally," said Yamazaki. He declined to say how much the laser might cost.
Modern fibre-optic networks operate on multiple wavelengths and the older varieties tend to use separate lasers for each wavelength. On top of maintaining these lasers, communications companies have to keep spares.
Using tunable lasers means carriers can install just one type of laser instead of many, saving money, parts and inventory costs, said Yamazaki.
There are two main types of tunable lasers that are used to send light pulses through fibre-optic cables. Some designs are based on a monolithic-type laser that integrates all the laser's components into a semiconductor chip. The second main type uses MEMS (microelectromechanical systems) technology which incorporates minute movable mirrors to adjust the laser wavelength.
Typically, monolithic-type lasers are complex to design and difficult to make, while MEMS-type tunable lasers tend to require maintenance to keep them performing efficiently.
The NEC laser is built on a LSI (large-scale integrated circuit) process that NEC uses to make semiconductor chips, so it is relatively easy to make at a low cost, while it is powerful enough and flexible enough to cater for the varied needs of fibre-optics communications.