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TI points a laser at wireless networks

Texas Instruments shows off a networking system that lets corporate administrators create local area networks through lasers and mirrors.

Forget networking cables. Texas Instruments is working on ways to hook up desktops via laser beams.

TI on Monday showed off a networking system called the Optical Wireless Solution, which lets corporate administrators create LANs (local area networks) through lasers and mirrors. Hooking up desktops through optical connections could make it easier to install networks in rooms where radio connections or cables might not be feasible.

The optical system, which will hit the market in the near future, will also require a digital signal processor, one of TI's bread-and-butter products.

"The (networking) market is in the billions. It's just depends on how you cut it," said Matt Harrison, business manager for the TI Semiconductor's Optical Wireless Products Group.

The heart of the networking technology is TI's Analog Micro-Mirror, which has been in development for five years at TI. The mirror, which can pivot 360 degrees, is used to direct a laser carrying network data.

The first application of the technology will be used to establish a wireless link between desktop PCs and company corporate networks, using the 802.3 protocol for wired Ethernet networks.

The mirror allows a laser to replace Ethernet cable or 802.11 wireless networking equipment as a method for connecting desktops. The PC-side mirror rotates to establish and maintain a connection with the network-side mirror. The first mirror would be located at a worker's desk or cubicle, and the second would be mounted on a wall or another area within sight. A TI digital signal processor chip is used to control the movements of the mirror.

TI believes that the technology will compete with other cable replacement technologies in at least some businesses, in part because it offers speeds of up to 100mbps (megabits per second). Generally, radio frequency-based wireless LANs offer 10mbps. The laser system is also easier to move.

"What we are is a very high bandwidth pipe to the Internet," Harrison said.

If there's a drawback to TI's optical wireless network technology, it's that the optical connections depend on a clean line of sight. A clear path must exist between the two mirrors. Radio signals penetrate walls, making 802.11 more convenient for a lot of buildings. Radio frequency networks allow workers to roam about a building and maintain a network connection constantly. The TI system, if offered in an easily portable form, would require that a worker walk into a room and allow the device to locate and establish a connection with another mirror.

Another possible drawback initially is cost. TI is shooting to hit a price of about $200, nearly the same as a radio networking card. However, because a second mirror is required on the network side, the cost will be higher per PC than that of a radio frequency network.

TI is developing a network base station, which would include up to 24 mirrors. Although it will be cheaper than buying the mirrors separately, the company admits that the kit will probably cost considerably more than radio frequency base stations, which average about $999.

TI asserts the indoor market for its optical wireless products could be about 20 million units per year based on statistics that show North American companies have about 50 million cubicles and reconfigure about 20 million of them per year. Meanwhile, the company is exploring opportunities in outdoor applications and in the photonic switching businesses. Instead of using electrical signals to represent data sent over a computer network, as Ethernet does, photonic switching uses light.

However, analysts say the technology is so new that it's tough to put a dollar figure on its market.

"This might fit better for applications in (brand-new) installations, where there hasn't been a wireless LAN before," said Will Strauss, president of Forward Concepts, a Tempe, Ariz., market researcher specializing in networking and communications.

"Also, this will work very well in a noisy environment such as a factory floor," he said.

The optical wireless networking products will be available as soon as midsummer for about $200 per mirror.