Agilent takes fibre optics on the road

Ernie and Bert rolled into Mississauga, Ont., Monday in a tractor-trailer stuffed with US$5 million worth of hardware.

In this case Ernie is Ernest Thompson, a technical consultant for Agilent Technologies Canada Inc. and Bert is actually ParBERT, a sensitive piece of equipment designed to test optical networking equipment for bit error rate tests.

Agilent is taking its “Dreams Made Real” trailer across North America on a 10-week tour to meet with optical networking vendors, research and development teams and service providers. Now in week three, Agilent has extended its tour to Canada and will move on to Ottawa and Montreal once it departs Agilent Canada’s Mississauga headquarters on Tuesday.

The trailer houses 13 demonstration stations with equipment for testing, troubleshooting and benchmarking optical networking equipment, said Agilent Canada field engineer Scott Brubaker, who acts as tour guide on the Canadian leg of the trip. The trailer is so crammed with hardware, there’s barely enough room to shake hands with the half-dozen engineers on board. But that hasn’t deterred Agilent customers who play in the fibre optic arena, said Brubaker. Nortel Networks, Lucent and Alcatel have all stopped by.

“Customers come in looking for solutions to a particular problem,” said Thompson, who mans the ParBERT station. ParBERT, for example, can test equipment to see if it is dropping any data in transmission and find the source of the problem. “We’re using small voltages and fast signals — because signals are so small, there’s a lot of room for error,” he added.

If cell phone signals sound tinny or a digital video feed gets dropped, it’s because packets of data aren’t making it across fibre intact, explained Brubaker. By ironing out the kinks in the R&D stage of design, vendors can help reduce these problems when it comes to the actual product stage, he said. The ParBERT on the trailer is Agilent’s 2.67 gigbit per second (gbps) model, but the company announced a 40 gbps version last month for US$900,000.

“It used to take a month to write a program to test components, now you can do it in half a day,” said Yves Raymond, a lightwave specialist in Agilent’s Kirkland, Que., office. Companies are able to reduce the time it takes from R&D into product phases using testing and benchmarking equipment, he said. “The way to go is optical . . . testing to enable the ISP of tomorrow.”

But tomorrow is further away that it seems. IDC Canada Ltd. analyst Dan McLean says the fibre optic market has stagnated in recent years, which may be what prompted Agilent to take its show on the road.

“There’s not a whole lot happening. Fibre optics is one of those areas within the whole communications industry that has probably been hit the hardest,” he said. ” My sense is these folks are going to be hard-pressed to do a whole lot in the market right now. They’re trying to stimulate some interest in business out there.”

Fibre optic Internet connections in the home are still a long way off, added McLean, particularly as copper and cable pipelines suffice for most people’s needs. High-definition video delivery will eventually drive the market for fibre in homes, said Brubaker, and wide fibre pipelines More high-definition video will drive demand for high speed fibre in homes and there will be consumer applications that will create demand for wide pipelines, he said. “It almost doesn’t matter how much bandwidth you have, you’re always going to eat it up.”

Agilent is selling its high end benchmarking equipment — particularly to the larger companies it counts among clients — but two-week rentals and three-year leases are also available.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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