Free space optics (FSO) provides a low-cost, rapidly deployable method of gaining access to the fiber optic backbone. FSO technology not only delivers fiber-quality connections, it provides the lowest-cost transmission capacity in the broadband industry. As a truly protocol-independent broadband conduit, FSO systems complement legacy network investments and work in harmony with any protocol, saving substantial up-front capital investments.

This is a line-of-sight technology that propagates light in free space such as vacuum, air, or outer space in order to wirelessly transmit data for computer networking and telecommunication. This technology requires light, which can be focused by either using light-emitting diodes or lasers. Free space optics uses optical signals as the carrier frequencies to offer point-to-point transmission of communication information through the atmosphere. This technology offers several benefits over the existing techniques such as radio, microwave, or optical systems. The advantages associated with FSOs – low initial investment, low power usage per transmitted bit, high bandwidth provisioning, flexible rollouts, high security, and quick establishment of communication link – are resulting in gradual adoption in increasing number of applications of free space optics in various industries.

An FSO link can be procured and installed for as little as one-tenth of the cost of laying fiber cable, and about half as much as comparable microwave/RF wireless systems. By transmitting data through the atmosphere, FSO systems dispense with the substantial costs of digging up sidewalks to install a fiber link. Unlike RF wireless technologies, FSO eliminates the need to obtain costly spectrum licenses or meet further regulatory requirements.

Free space optics offers numerous applications but there are a lot of concerns about the security issues in unregulated space. One of the security risks of wireless transmissions is the interception of data. The broader the signal, the easier it is to intercept. Free space optics allows for a much narrower signal than traditional wireless methods of transmission and it stays narrow for the whole journey, which means there is a lower security risk.

With free space optics there is also an absence of what are termed side lobes, which is energy that is lost to the sides and back. This lost energy carries the same signal as the main transmission and this means it can be picked up by someone other than the intended target.

Another natural security feature of free space optics is the need for an uninterrupted signal between units. If the signal becomes blocked for any reason, including by a detector, the transmission will automatically end.

The Fundamental Challenge

The FSO technology-based wireless systems are not without challenges. The fundamental limitation of free space optical communications arises from the environment through which it propagates. Although relatively unaffected by rain and snow, free space optical communication systems can be severely affected by fog and atmospheric turbulence.

Market Scenario

The market for FSO is in growth phase. The factors driving the FSO market are last-mile connectivity, no requirement of licensing, and alternative solution of overburdened RF technology for outdoor networking. The possible new opportunities for the FSO market could be affordable extension in the existing fiber network, increasing number of space research programs, and replacement of old technologies with FSO technology for enterprise connectivity. Furthermore, quicker time-to-market and reduced costs associated with free space optics technology are pushing market growth.

Key players in the fiber space optics market are coming up with rapid technological advancements to mitigate the effect of atmospheric attenuation on the FSO signals, and this is expected to offer potential growth opportunities to the growth of the global free space optics market. Further, unexpected exponential growth of the telecommunications industry and tremendous increase in the online time used up by existing customers is witnessed in the developing regions of Asia-Pacific, Middle-East and Africa, and Latin America. This is persistently fuelling the demand for bandwidth and consequently offering lucrative opportunities for the growth of the FSO market.

Some of the major players in the market are Trimble Hungary Ltd. (Hungary), Moscow Ltd. (Russia), AOptix Technologies Inc. (US), Optelix (South Africa), LightPointe Communications, Inc. (US), IBSENtelecom Ltd. (Norway), Harris Corporation (US), Anova Technologies (US), fSONA Networks Corp. (Canada), and Wireless Excellence Limited (UK), among others.

World's first hybrid optical network exclusively utilizing laser technology. In October 2016, Equinix Inc. has been selected by Laser Light Communications, USA, and its affiliate firm, Laser Light Global, UK, as its strategic interconnection provider for Laser Light's All Optical Hybrid Global Network, or HALO, the world's first hybrid optical network exclusively utilizing laser technology. As part of the initial agreement, Laser Light will establish its inaugural global Point of Presence at Equinix's DC11 International Business Exchange data center in the Washington, DC area.

The way most data travels today is on submarine cables between continents, and the issue with that is it is a developed market phenomenon – most of the cables run sort of East-West in the northern hemisphere before they go South. So if you want to go from Argentina to South Africa, you have to go all the way up to North America, across the North Atlantic, and then down. A direct beam that can go up from Argentina, hit a satellite, across to another satellite, then back down to South Africa, could take 60/70 minutes off the round-trip time.

Removing the various steps and winding pathways that make up a fiber network is not the only reason satellite networks can be faster – light travels roughly 31 percent slower through standard fiber optical cables than it does through a vacuum. Even small improvements in latency are already proving enticing in transatlantic cables.

Moving Forward

The FSO market is expected to grow from USD 116.7 million in 2015 to USD 940.2 million by 2020, at a CAGR of 51.8 percent during the forecast period. The VLC market is expected to grow from USD 327.8 million in 2015 to USD 8502.1 Million by 2020, at a CAGR of 91.8 percent between 2015 and 2020.

With the introduction of VLC as an optical indoor networking technology, FSO technology got its counterpart. The technology has been commercialized for one-way communication applications; however, research is still going on for the realization of two-way communication applications. The growth of the VLC market is driven by the factors such as faster and safer data transfer than other competing technologies, RF spectrum bandwidth crunch, no bandwidth limitation, less energy consumption, and greener, cleaner, and safer technology. However, factors such as global acceptance by the electronic devices manufacturers, commercialization of the technology for two-way communication, and government funding can generate huge opportunities for this market in the near future.

It is now expected that both the technologies would revolutionize the future wireless communication market by making optical transmission possible for both indoor as well as outdoor usage.


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