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Qwest embraces free-space lasers

The company has become the first major carrier to install free-space laser equipment under a deal with LightPointe, according to representatives for both companies.

Qwest Communications International has become the first major carrier to install free-space laser equipment under a deal with LightPointe revealed this week, according to representatives for both companies.

The contract calls for Qwest to install equipment manufactured by San Diego-based LightPointe. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Qwest's support lends needed credibility to the fledgling free-space laser market, which sometimes also is referred to as free-space optics (FSO).

"This is the first worldwide major carrier that's committed to free-space optics," said LightPointe Chief Executive John Griffin.

Using eye-safe, invisible lasers, the technology beams voice and Internet traffic through the air, rather than via underground fiber-optic networks, even delivering data through glass windowpanes. But the technology is susceptible to attenuation from fog, rain and other elements, including heat waves, or scintillation, raising some doubts about its reliability for service-conscious carriers.

In addition to LightPointe's sale of gear to Qwest, the company earned the support of Cisco Systems and Corning in July when the two communications heavyweights combined to invest more than $33 million in LightPointe. Similarly, rivals Terabeam and AirFiber have received funding from Lucent Technologies and Nortel Networks, respectively.

As free-space lasers begin to be used more extensively by major service providers such as Qwest, it could signal further acceptance of the technology.

"We're using LightPointe as a way to extend some of our broadband capabilities, particularly in metro areas," said Qwest spokeswoman Claire Maledon. "We see it as a supplement to our massive fiber network."

Qwest trimmed its 2001 capital expenditure budget earlier this week to $8.5 billion from $8.8 billion. But the reduced spending on hardware doesn't cause LightPointe executives to fret.

"All carriers are under capital pressures, but our solutions help them get customers on their network more cost-effectively," Griffin said.

LightPointe's carrier-grade equipment costs about $45,000 for two links--the gear to send and receive data--that carry traffic at speeds of up to 1.25 gigabits per second over distances of about 500 meters to 1,000 meters. Business-level equipment costs about $8,000 for two links capable of 155-megabit-per-second speeds.

Qwest conducted several months of tests on LightPointe's equipment around the beginning of the year. It signed the deal in June.