Pandemics and Global Digitization: How It’s Affecting Optical Technology

By Casimer DeCusatis

As of this writing, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread with few signs of slowing down; over 2.2 million cases and over 150,000 deaths have been reported so far. Despite this, the OFC conference continued to serve as the preeminent technical exchange for optical communications and networking professionals, with many technical sessions now available for online viewing to those who registered for OFC. In fact, there are some industry analysts who feel that recent events might lead to significantly greater interest in optical communication technologies.

Surging Video Conferencing

It’s hardly a surprise that more people are working from home than ever before, or finishing their college semesters online. Video conferencing traffic has surged during the pandemic. Further, government-imposed quarantines have driven a spike in residential broadband use. For example, with Italy under lockdown, traffic on Telecom Italia's network is up 70%. In the U.S., Open Vault projects an 11% rise in average monthly usage per customer, exceeding 460 Gbytes per month, based on trends from monitoring usage of one million wired broadcast subscribers. Having experienced the convenience and cost savings of telecommuting, many companies are unlikely to give up these benefits even after the crisis has passed. Accordingly, network operators are preparing to increase their investments in new optical network technology, with the expectation that traffic levels will remain higher over the long term.  Wall Street analysts including MKM Partners, Raymond James investment banking, Moffet Nathanson Research, Wells Fargo and others concur that off-site broadband access has emerged as a fundamental business requirement, driving infrastructure upgrades at telecom service providers.


One candidate technology for these upgrades is the next generation passive optical network standard NG PON 2. As discussed during OFC, this standard can support symmetrical 10 Gbit/second services, and signaling up to 40 Gbit/second, over currently installed optical fibers. In areas where subscribers need more than the 1 Gbit/second services provided by GPON technology, the deployment of NG PON 2 becomes an attractive option. Although the newer technology has a higher capital cost than GPON, these costs can be offset by savings in other areas, such as power, space, and ease of management using software defined networking (SDN). Recently, Verizon announced the industry’s first large-scale deployment of NG PON 2 as part of its Intelligent Network Edge strategy, intended to eliminate the need for multiple network application infrastructures and deliver higher speed services to the fiber backhaul. Verizon is working with two vendors, Calix and Adtran and plans to lead with the deployment of Calix’s AXOS E9-2 Intelligent Edge System, which enables SDN access and merges business, residential, and wireless backhaul traffic onto a single fiber-based access network. This approach is expected to be complimentary to Verizon’s strategic plan for increased 5G terminations, even though the FCC’s plans to auction off additional wireless spectrum later this year has been delayed by the current pandemic.

800G Optical Transceivers

Another promising growth technology discussed at OFC was 600G and 800G optical transceivers and related components for the optical transport and coherent digital signal processing markets. For example, Verizon has been working with Ciena to demonstrate up to 800 Gbit/second traffic on a single optical wavelength. Recent test results promise single digit millisecond latency at a price point that enables applications in video streaming, cloud computing, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. And despite the pandemic’s huge impact in China, telecom equipment provider Huawei recently completed an 800G trial on a live transport network, and announced their own wavelength tunable 800G optical transceiver crafted by their subsidiary HiSilicon.

These and many other promising announcements at OFC could be the start of a significant build-out in high bandwidth network infrastructure; if so, then perhaps the pandemic will have a small silver lining as it kick-starts a new wave of high-speed optical connectivity. Does your industry have a story about the pandemic’s impact on technology that you’d like to share? Drop me a line on Twitter (@Dr_Casimer) and maybe we’ll continue this discussion in a future blog.



Posted: 28 April 2020 by Casimer DeCusatis | with 0 comments

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The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The Optical Fiber Communication Conference and Exposition (OFC)  or its sponsors.