Photonics: Shining a spotlight on new markets

Published in the Ottawa Business Journal newspaper and website.
June 11, 2007

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BTI Photonics CEO Lance Laking.
BTI Photonics CEO Lance Laking.
Photo by DARREN BROWN for the Ottawa Business Journal

Fibre-optics technology isn’t just for the telecom industry anymore, and Ottawa’s photonics companies are capitalizing on that fact with innovative new products for telecom and beyond.

Six-year-old BTI Photonics is one such company. It caters to the boom of high-bandwidth sites like video uploading phenomenon YouTube with its system-level photonics product that dramatically increases the capacity of networks “at the edge.” These networks are used by small business parks and suburbs, and are smaller than the core infrastructures for central offices provided by companies such as Nortel and Cisco.

“With the onslaught of video-streaming on the Internet, sites like Joost and Google are increasing their requirements for video capacity and there are huge demands on bandwidth and service providers’ infrastructure,” says BTI’s chief executive officer Lance Laking. “It’s a challenge for cable and telephone companies to deliver this bandwidth competitively.”

Mr. Laking says the video-streaming trend has changed all requirements for infrastructure, with what is currently available for networks at the edge unable to accommodate the huge bandwidth needed.

However, BTI’s product is able to fit on top of existing systems to increase capacity, thereby saving the huge cost of having to build an entirely new infrastructure.

“Photonics has advanced and is now optimized for lower-cost applications,” adds Mr. Laking.

Meanwhile OZ Optics, which started out in 1985 as a sensors business but focused on telecom during the boom in the ’90s, has returned to its first love. It is developing a photonics-based sensor which helps detect information such as structural strain, temperature and damage, on a distributed basis.

The company’s product, which was refined from a piece of raw technology developed at the University of Ottawa, gives information across an entire structure, unlike traditional sensors which work on a point-by-point basis.

“In the last 10 years there’s been a push towards ‘smart structures’ with built-in sensors, for example, power lines, pipes, and even bricks and walls, which can automatically detect damage or leaks or high temperatures,” says OZ Optics’s CEO Omur Sezerman. “However, with traditional sensors, you’d typically have to put in hundreds of thousands of them in order to get information across the whole structure, which isn’t very cost effective.”

OZ Optics’s distributed sensors aim to get the whole picture while also reducing installation costs, and Mr. Sezerman says the technology has opened up markets which weren’t available before to traditional sensors. For instance, the oil and gas sector can use these distributed sensors in order to detect leakages and cracks in oil rigs, while the engineering and construction sector can prevent bridge collapses such as the one that killed five people in Laval last October.

“The challenge now is to work with and test out different applications to see where these distributed sensors can be applied,” Mr. Sezerman says.

Although Ottawa’s fibre optics industry has been burned by the telecom bust and more and more photonics companies are looking for other areas in which to venture with their technology, some firms are still finding new ways to work in telecom.

Peleton Photonics recently launched its multi-channel laser array product portfolio targeting the multibillion-dollar fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) market. Peleton’s product brings costs down for the lasers, used instead of twisted copper cables in the last-mile cable Internet connection between customers and service providers.

“Lasers for wavelength-division multiplexing (WDM) passive optical networks are generally too expensive to be used in that part of the network, since there are millions of users and a laser required for each user,” says Peleton CEO Richard Pepin. “Our laser product provides multiple wavelengths to multiple users at a cost point which is acceptable.”

Mr. Pepin explains that a typical laser provides only one wavelength, with some companies using a time-division method to split each wavelength into several parts in order to serve many users. However, these split wavelengths only give users a tiny portion of bandwidth and could pose security issues since all the information is coming down one wavelength.

Peleton’s product, on the other hand, provides 32 dense WDM wavelengths on a single laser output, which provides users with more bandwidth since each user is no longer sharing wavelength with another user, and also solves the potential security problems arising from shared wavelengths.

All three companies show an industry on the up-and-up, although these executives agree there are still challenges facing the photonics sector.

Mr. Sezerman says the fibre optics industry as a whole is seeing “happy days around the corner,” with growth in both telecom and non-telecom applications. However, he says, all three levels of government in Canada have failed to support local industry through tax policies, and as a result Canada’s photonics sector has fallen far in the eyes of the world.

“We have our product being implemented in Korea, but there’s no interest at home,” says Mr. Sezerman. “Furthermore, manufacturing is expensive in Canada with the rise of the dollar, so you see a lot of companies moving their operations away from home.”

Mr. Pepin notes that there’s a lack of diversification in the local industry, with many photonics companies still focusing on the telecom sector even though it is showing much slower growth than other fields.

He acknowledges that Peleton itself still does a lot of business with the telecom industry, but points out that the industry must diversify to avoid another market collapse.

“There’s a lot of opportunities (for the photonics sector) not just in telecom,” he says. “You can use fibre optics in industrial lasers, lighting systems, displays and clean technology; it’s really a technology that opens up industries.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Laking says the challenge is for companies to recognize that the climate is quite different from that of the early 2000s when the sector was simply building capacity and trying to figure out what applications to develop to use that capacity.

“Now it’s the other way around, with carriers scrambling to build infrastructure since the applications exist and people are buying them,” says Mr. Laking.

“No other technology that exists is able to handle video, voice and data better than photonics; it’s proven in physics. And things will continue to get faster and broader.”

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