Monday, March 12, 2012

OFC/NFOEC welcomes 12,000 attendees to the "Age of Abundance"

With its attendance increasing for the fourth year in a row, the 2012 Optical Fiber Communication Conference and Exposition/ National Fiber Optic Engineers Conference (OFC/NFOEC), held March 4-8 in Los Angeles, CA, also included an expanded show floor with 560 exhibitors. And while attendee figures and exhibit space were certainly abundant, the biggest message I took back from OFC/NOFEC 2012 was the numerous Plenary and special presentations from companies like Facebook and Google exclaiming that today's society should continue to enjoy the "Age of Abundance" in terms of the availability of communications bandwidth.

In the Tuesday morning Plenary sessions that opened the conference, Google VP, Access Services, Milo Medin presented his keynote entitled "Bandwidth, Optics and the Age of Abundance." Medin described how 16 years ago, the @Home Network--a high-speed cable Internet service provider from 1996 to 2002 founded by Medin, William Randolph Hearst III, and cable companies TCI, Comcast, and Cox Communications--offered 4-5 Mbps download speeds at $40 a month, but was generally viewed as offering "too much bandwidth." Just 4 years later, however, it would have a million subscribers and we all know that while 4-5 Mbps is adequate for many, the growing desire to stream videos and download gigabit data files is demanding ever-higher bandwidth offerings from cable, optical fiber, wireless, and satellite providers alike.

If you missed Medin, you can see an introduction to his Plenary here:

And even more enlightening is this video from Google itself, which introduces their gigabit fiber-to-the-home network initiative:

While the video is a bit dated, it explains how Google plans to offer an "open access" network and teach other networking companies what they learn. Google Fiber (Mountain View, CA) even had a booth (#906) at OFC/NFOEC.

The "Age of Abundance" is further evidenced in how network IP transit costs continue to decline as bandwidth grows, from $1200/Mbps in 1998 to $3.25/Mbps in 2012, according to Medin and a 2011 broadband economics study by Google. Medin says this pace can only be maintained using "optical" transport. Sounds like good news for optics, right? Not so fast. Sadly, and this is perhaps the most disturbing message that I gathered, all of this bandwidth must grow without increasing the price to the customer--much more than what it is already. This means that huge bandwidth gains will require new networks or upgrades to existing networks, at nearly frozen equipment prices. Looking at this from the viewpoint of all my friends in the telecom industry trying to make money on the components and network equipment side of the business, it's a grim scenario indeed. Maybe space-division multiplexing will be the savior? See supporting materials on space-division multiplexing at and

Regardless of the means to the bandwidth-nirvana end, OFC/NFOEC certainly showed a wealth of integrated photonics architectures, few-moded and multicore fiber options, new high-speed coherent communications equipment, and a seeming mood of confidence that the technologists will somehow pull through and provide yet more bandwidth without significantly raising prices. But I sense that much of the exuberance could be waning for many of the "veteran" optical fiber crowd as some companies still struggle to grow telecom financial margins. While a gigabit of bandwidth seems like plenty to me, I can't help but wonder what new bandwidth-sucking applications will be around in 2020 and what the network of the future will actually look like!

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