Cost-Effective Laser Technology Makes Strides in Foreign Markets

Drawbacks include limited range and possible weather sensitivity

THE popular conception of laser beams is anchored in science fiction adventures, with heroes and villains doing battle with ray guns that shoot whooshes of laser light.

Yet there are more practical ways to use laser technology, from surgical tools to the inner workings of compact disc players. Now, a little-known company, Laser Communications Inc., based in Lancaster, Pa., has found a way to combine the practical uses of lasers with a method that would be at home in any sci-fi saga.

The company is fast-stepping its way into foreign markets with products that replace telephone lines and ground cabling with a nonstop stream of airborne laser beams. With LCI's technology, transmissions of audio, video, and data are zapped through the air at distances of up to one mile. ``The idea of transmitting signals by light is not new,'' says Michael Berman, vice president of LCI, a privately owned affiliate of publicly traded Safeguard Scientifics in Wayne, Pa. ``Consider the TV remote control. Our technology can be considered the remote control's big brother.''

Far-reaching company

Founded in 1983, LCI posts annual revenues of about $2.5 million and employs only 13. Yet, its technology is in more than 1,000 installations in 35 countries. In Japan, its customers include Sony Corporation and Panasonic; United States-based clients include the World Bank, the New York office of Deutsche Bank, and various military installations.

One reason for LCI's success in Japan is the cost-effectiveness of lasers versus other private wireless networks. ``The cost of using microwave, for instance, would be comparatively very expensive, probably more than double the price of using lasers,'' says Jenny Walker, editor of Asian Communications, a British journal on the Far East. ``In Japan, real throughput of microwave technology is only 1.5 megabytes per second, despite the claim that it can be up to six megabytes per second.''

The laser technology itself is not very complicated and has been installed in remote sites, including Lesotho, in southern Africa, by local operations staff following written instructions.

With LCI's systems, the exterior wiring associated with communications connectivity is replaced by laser units that simultaneously send and receive transmissions across clear line-of-sight applications. This setup must avoid permanent obstructions that could block the laser flow.

The laser units are connected to building telephone switches or local area networks, allowing the transmissions to flow between computers, phones, or video cameras at the sites. The technology accommodates any PC or mainframe network and all major forms of computer, audio, and video capacities.

One potential drawback of the technology is the limited range of its transmission. ``This is primarily a short-haul communications vehicle,'' explains Mr. Berman. ``With a series of relays, we can create a network of laser units that can stretch across an entire city.''

Another possible drawback is bad weather, though it has rarely been a problem, even during Hurricane Andrew, Berman says.

Fast data transmission

The LCI laser beams provide some of the fastest data transmission available. On a telephone line, data travels at 1.5 million bytes per second. By laser beam, it travels at 16 million bytes per second. This is crucial for high volume data transfer, such as in CAD/CAM or image processing. It only takes a few hours to get the system on-line, which has been critical in emergencies, including the 1989 Los Angeles earthquake.

Overseas, LCI's laser transmissions are a substitute for unreliable telephone service. In Mexico City, for example, major banks are using lasers as part of their private networks, Berman says.

Several Scandinavian national telephone services are using the technology as well.

One big advantage of using lasers is the inability of criminals to tap into transmissions. ``Any interference with the laser flow will signal something is amiss,'' Berman says.

LCI's latest focus is away from interbuilding connectivity and more toward intrabuilding. In April, the company acquired InfraLAN Technologies Inc. of Acton, Mass., a provider of infrared wireless communications. InfraLan customers include the Chase Manhattan Corporation, Lehman Brothers, Travelers Insurance, and Citicorp.

``This acquisition solidifies LCI's commitment to providing state-of-the-art wireless solutions and positions us as the leader in channel-speed wireless connectivity,'' says Richard Guttendorf, LCI's president.

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