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GPON chips rush home

01-21-08, By Rick Merritt

Startup Iamba Networks Inc. today will roll out its first chips to bring fiber to the home, joining a growing chorus of companies hoping a long-awaited ramp in gigabit passive optical networks (GPONs) will begin this year.

Competitors including BroadLight, Conexant, Freescale and PMC-Sierra are angling for position with a coming generation of more-integrated chips. The silicon promises to merge into one box optical terminals outside the home and residential gateways inside it.

But it is still unclear exactly how and when the major carriers, each with its own unique requirements, will be ready to switch on GPONs as the next step in broadband service. "The market just isn't there yet, because it's still developing," said Jag Bolaria, senior analyst with the Linley Group (Mountain View, Calif.). "Verizon is leading the way with BPON [broadband passive optical networks], but they are just in field trials with GPON so far."

Complicating the picture, the systems are typically designed by large telecom companies--including Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson, Hua Wei, Motorola, Nokia Siemens Networks and Tellabs--but made by a broader group of smaller companies, many of them scattered across Taiwan and China.

As it joins the fray, startup Iamba (Cupertino, Calif.) is claiming to offer higher performance, lower costs and deeper software support than some of the competition. Its iSN-1000 chips use as many as three Altera Nios cores delivering up to 540 Dhrystone Mips to run software the company provides for IPTV, voice-over-Internet Protocol and GPON management, as well as applications developed by systems makers and carriers.

Iamba is sampling a three-member family of 1.2-watt chips, ranging from a gigabit chip for a single home to a high-end part supporting up to 24 virtual connections for an apartment building. It expects to have parts in production in 60 days.

The chips are designed for four-layer boards and sell for $15 apiece in volumes of more than 100,000 units. They target optical network terminals that cost less than $100 for outdoor units. Iamba aims to follow up the launch with chips sampling in April for the optical line unit, which drives back-end carrier systems.

Iamba's technology "is an improvement over chip sets from companies like BroadLight, Freescale and others," said Jeff Heynen, directing analyst for broadband and IPTV at Infonetics Research (Wake Forest, N.C.). "The big question is whether Iamba's technology provides a significant [enough] cost savings to the equipment makers that it makes sense to include its reference designs to potentially increase margins. Now that volume GPON deployments are beginning, price and field experience are going to be the major factors."

The company got its start in 2000 with plans to deliver systems for 622-Mbit/second ATM-based BPON technology, but after a management change in 2005 it shifted to semiconductors and 2.5-Gbit/s GPONs.

"The BPON market was slowing, and it would have cost tens of millions of dollars to launch a new systems company that would have to compete with the likes of Alcatel-Lucent, Hua Wei and others," said Reuven Segev, vice president of marketing at Iamba.

Eyes on the horizon
Chip makers are optimistic this is the year GPON boxes will roll into neighborhoods where carriers are deploying fiber-to-the-home services like Verizon's FiOS.

"We've been in a systems design phase for the last six months" as OEMs port their voice and management software to chips, said Pranay Aiya, a director of marketing of Conexant Systems Inc.. "Deployments have taken longer than expected, and Verizon's transition to GPON has been slower than expected." Still, the company is hopeful volumes will expand beyond 10 million units a year by 2011, Aiya said.

"We expect the industry to ramp this year, because a lot of carriers have had this technology in lab and field trials," said Dan Parsons, vice president of marketing at BroadLight. The company has sold about 250,000 chips for GPON terminals to date and has orders on hand for another 350,000. Some of the early deployments serviced small systems in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

In the United States, AT&T has said it may use GPON for new homes starting this year. But for most customers, AT&T uses a fiber-to-the curb architecture, with VDSL2 over copper to the home.

"It looks like we will see a ramp starting in the second half," said Steven Haas, a director of product marketing at PMC-Sierra Inc., which has sold only sample quantities of GPON chips to date. "Everybody is talking about Verizon and AT&T and a few other possibilities in Hong Kong, Korea and Singapore."

China Netcom and China Telecom have said they will deploy Gigabit Ethernet PON technology in new apartment buildings, said BroadLight's Parsons. In Europe, France Telecom has said it aims to connect as many as 200,000 subscribers in 2008 with integrated GPON gateways.

A key milestone for GPON has been getting everyone's equipment tested. The Full Service Access Network group of carriers and system vendors has been conducting interoperability events hosted by carriers, which optimize tests for some of the particular characteristics of their networks.

"By the second half, I think there will be good interoperability for each of the carrier networks, and the risks of buying the two ends from different vendors will be diminished," said PMC-Sierra's Haas.

Some chip makers, such as BroadLight and Iamba, aim at sales into systems on both ends of the wire. Others are targeting volume sales to home terminals only.

Freescale Semiconductor, for one, has no plans for chips serving the back-end carrier systems. "Most of the systems vendors are using custom FPGAs for that," said Suhail Agwani, a marketing and business development manager in Freescale's Networking and Multimedia group.

One unknown for those aiming at gateway boxes is which home-networking technologies will take off. Verizon is backing Multimedia over Coax, AT&T is using phone-line networking and many carriers in Europe will adopt HomePlug power line technology. Chip makers include a PCI link to an external home-net chip that carriers can specify for their gateways.

The need to tailor terminals for each carrier's requirements is one reason systems makers like Alcatel tend to contract with a range of small design houses.