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Nortel matches Lucent's laser bid

AirFiber is the newest entrant in the emerging laser-based technology market, announcing its first product and a resale agreement with Nortel Networks.

    AirFiber, a start-up communications equipment maker, today became the newest entrant in the emerging laser-based technology market, announcing its first product and a resale agreement with Nortel Networks.

    After two years of development, privately held AirFiber unveiled its OptiMesh gear, which will allow communications carriers to deliver Internet and communications traffic at high speeds for business networks.

    The company also signed a resale agreement with communications equipment giant Nortel, an AirFiber investor, to market and distribute AirFiber's laser gear under a cobranded name. The move sets up a potential battle for customers between Nortel and Lucent Technologies, which recently signed a similar alliance with AirFiber competitor TeraBeam Networks.

    The endorsement of Nortel and Lucent, two telecommunications powerhouses, lends significant credibility to a nascent market, which has faced some criticism for the technology's reliability.

    So-called free space lasers carry communications and Internet traffic at high speeds using invisible, harmless beams of light. Because lasers don't require digging trenches or spectrum licenses, the technology is touted as faster and cheaper to install than fiber optics or fixed wireless systems.

    Although the optical laser technology is not new, its potential use in communications networks is being driven in part by lower-cost components in recent years. For example, AirFiber uses plastic lenses produced by Polaroid's instant camera unit and low-cost lasers, executives said.

    But some industry experts have concerns about laser networking technology because of its potential for disruptions amid harsh weather conditions and in thick fog.

    AirFiber believes it will solve any problems by installing the rooftop gear closer together and creating a redundant mesh of networks.

    The company is conducting trials in Tokyo, Madrid and Dallas and has plans to test its gear in Brussels, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Denver and Portland later this year, executives said. The OptiMesh equipment is capable of carrying Internet and communications traffic at speeds up to 622 mbps (megabits per second).

    Investors in the San Diego-based AirFiber, founded in 1998, include Nortel, Foundation Capital and Enterprise Partners. The company's management team includes several former 3Com executives.