Tunable lasers differ from conventional optical lasers in that they emit bursts of light, which eventually get "read" as data, of different wavelengths. Traditional lasers emit light at fixed wavelengths.
That's part of the reason fiber-optic networks based on fixed lasers are expensive, said Gary Wiseman, director of marketing in the optical platforms division. Manufacturers have to design several different pieces of equipment to create a readable signal.
Carriers, meanwhile, have to install the equipment and keep spares on hand. Plus, if spectrum requirements change, older fixed lasers have to be replaced with new ones.
Tunable lasers, by contrast, can be programmed remotely to adjust to changing conditions, so only a few different models have to be made or installed. Intel's laser also contains no moving parts, which reduces breakdowns.
"This will dramatically simplify procurement and logistics," Wiseman said. "A single tunable laser will replace between 40 and 80 equivalent fixed-wavelength lasers."
Reusability is the operative word in Intel's communications strategy. The company's overall goal is to manufacture products such as programmable network processors and tunable lasers that can fit into a wide variety of equipment. As in the PC market, fungible components should reduce the cost of manufacturing or maintaining systems.
Costs remain a major problem in the communications arena. Internet traffic continues to double annually, according to various studies, and will increase 1,000-fold in a decade, predicted Sean Maloney, executive vice president of Intel's Communication Group. Revenue, however, remains flat. To get around the dilemma, carriers and equipment makers will have to cut expenses.
Competitors are working on similar strategies. And, while it is less expensive, programmable equipment often can't provide the same level of performance as custom-made devices.
The company acquired the tunable laser technology when it bought Newark, Calif.-based New Focus in May 2002. Subsequently, it acquired Light Logic, which specialized in optical packaging.
Intel's first optical products containing tunable lasers came out in September, but the light source came from a different company. Intel is now starting to display the New Focus-inspired tunable laser and says it will get a product out by early 2004.
Tunable lasers cost more to make, but not much more so, Wiseman said.
"The manufacturing process is only slightly more complicated than building a conventional laser," he said.