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Optical Fiber

A history of glass and light

Since the first optical fiber was lain in the country in 1977, its network has expanded and now covers 1 million km.

reproductionGraham Bell’s photophonereproduction

The desire to compete vigorously in the global optical communication market sounds like the raving typical of a dangerous megalomaniac. The ambition to compete with giants such as Siemens, Ericsson, Lucent or Alcatel has been manifested by a Brazilian company installed in a 1,500 sq.m warehouse – scheduled to be expanded to another 1,800 sq.m. This is the proposal of  Padtec S.A., a company established since 2001 in Campinas, at the high tech complex of the CPqD. Last month, this company signed an agreement with FAPESP focused on the research of innovative solutions related to optical fibers (see page 23). Far from being a crazy dream, these fundamentals are well grounded based on the company’s performance and, especially, on the expertise achieved by Brazil in the field of optical fibers in the last thirty years, the industry to which this company is closely connected.

In the midst of the ups and downs of the telecommunications arena in the country, the starting point of this story on the technology of optical communication systems is the inauguration of the Centro de Pesquisa e Desenvolvimento da Empresa Brasileira de Telecomunicações/ CPqD (the Telebras Research and Development Center) in August 1976. At that time, CPqD was headed by General José Antonio de Alencastro e Silva, the president of  Telebrás (the state-owned telephone services operator) and by Euclides Quandt de Oliveira, then Minister of Communications of the Geisel Administration. But there are those who believe that it is more appropriate to say that the starting point was a certain day in April 1977 when, similar to the innovative and revolutionary glass blowing process, the country’s first optical fiber cable was lain in a 2-meter tower located at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp)’s Gleb Wataghin Physics Institute. Strictly speaking, optical fibers, Unicamp and the CPqD hold a unique position in the history of contemporary technology in Brazil, which includes a key character in this story full of memorable and stressful events: José Ripper Filho.

“Things never happen as planned, as described in subsequent reports. Nothing is as organized as history would lead us to believe”, Ripper points out. He goes on to explain how, upon coming back to Brazil in 1971, after a four-year doctoral program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology/MIT and several years working at Bell Laboratories, he went on a mission to convince many people that the country had a unique opportunity for growth if it took advantage of two events that had occurred  the year before. “Bell Labs had created the first laser that could work continuously at room temperature. And Corning had announced the creation of history’s first optical fiber. It became very clear to me at that moment that the impact of these innovations on telecommunications would be inevitable. But I also knew that it would take about 15 years for the market to feel this impact. Therefore, Brazil had all this time to get ready and become competitive in a crucial area for development”,  he recalls.

The former Unicamp professor is currently the president of AsGa, a company that manufactures equipment for transmission via optical fibers. He says that, “black on white, disregarding the infinite gray areas of the process”,  innovations always occur because of evolution or revolution. In the first case, he adds, those who are already in the market have an enormous competitive edge in terms of business. “But when the process is a revolutionary one, those in the market resist accepting innovations”, and this is why the parties responsible for a specific development within a company often leave  after having achieved it,  and set up a new company.  It is sometimes easier for someone to observe the significance of a given revolutionary innovation, such as optical fibers, from a laboratory , Ripper adds, trying to minimize the importance of his view on what was beginning to happen in the telecom field in 1970.

Presenting ideas
After a mild initial repercussion to his preachings, Ripper, who had arrived at Unicamp with other professors, “informally led by physicist Rogério César Cerqueira Leite”,  was invited by José Pelúcio Ferreira, president of the recently created FINEP center for research and project funding, to present his ideas to the recently established Telebrás. “This worked”,  he recalls. In 1973, he had forwarded a 145-page document to Telebrás, which included a bibliography and a few diagrams illustrating his proposal. The cover sheet with the Unicamp logo on the top had the following title: “Laser communication systems”.  The subtitle on the following page explained that the document was “a research and development project submitted to Telecomunicações Brasileiras   S.A. by the semiconductor devices group at the Gleb Wataghin Physics Institute of the State University of Campinas.”   This subtitle was followed by the following names: Zeferino Vaz, the President Unicamp, Cerqueira Leite, director of the institute, and José E. Ripper Filho, who executed the project.

repoductionCountless copper wires used for communication are gradually being replaced by optical fibersrepoduction

The third paragraph of the document’s introduction explained the systems that had been suggested in order to substitute  microwaves used in the desired high capacity transmission (the yellowed, original copy of the document is still stored at the CPqD), and summarized where Ripper was heading. The text states that: “The second system being developed uses a much higher frequency wave as the carrier (1014 to 1015 Hz) in the region of the visible spectrum or of the nearby infra red. This system is lagging behind the other; however, due to recent research developments, its potential cost is much lower than that of millimeter waves. The two major results of these developments were the manufacturing of efficient glass fibers by Corning Corp. and the development – which the author of this project participated in – of semiconductor lasers, able to operate continuously even in temperatures higher than room temperature. The glass fibers are a cheap and easily installed means of transmission, as they allow for radius curves smaller than one meter and have very small diameters (tenths of a millimeter). Moreover, other fibers can be easily installed in parallel, thus multiplying the system’s capacity. The lasers are used both in the transmitters and in the repeaters; they are inexpensive items that can be shaped with a lot of thruway space.

Many years after submitting this proposal, a casual meeting with Quandt de Oliveira led Ripper to ask him if, when he approved the proposal as president of  Telebrás, a position which Oliveira held from 1972 to 1974, he had really believed in the project. “Oliveira answered that he had thought it was “completely mad”,  but that he was fully aware that the country needed telecom experts, and believed that I would train many experts”,   he recalls.

The years that followed the creation of the CPqD, says the current president, Helio Graciosa, witnessed the impressive development of optical communication in Brazil. “In 1978, Telebrás was able to develop a program whose goal was to implement an optical communication system based on technology developed in Brazil and make it operational by early 1985. To everyone’s surprise, this project was implemented in August 1984.”  The first part of this system went into operation at the Companhia Telefônica do Brasil, the country’s central telephone company, in the city of  Uberlândia, State of Minas Gerais. This was made possible by the work of ABC X-Tal, a Brazilian company that had hired researchers from the Optical Fibers Group at Unicamp, had signed a US$ 6 million contract with Telebrás for the production of  2,000 km of optical fibers and had managed to deliver the first 500 km lot in August. It is also important to mention Elebra, another Brazilian company that had supplied the laser equipment, and Brascel, the cables supplier.

Graciosa and Antonio Carlos Bordeaux Rego, currently technological innovations director at CPqD, and who had also joined Ripper’s group at Unicamp in those pioneering years, recall that earlier, in July 1982, an important field test for optical communication was conducted in conjunction with Cetel of Rio de Janeiro. “It was a 7-km connection between Cidade de Deus and Jacarepaguá and we were testing 480 phone channels in an optical fiber. There was a central station at Jacarepaguá, equipped with transmission and reception devices. The same equipment was installed in Cidade de Deus. We had a Kevlar-coated experimental cable that had been buried at a depth of 1.5 to 2 meters. Every 2 km, we had a box through which to pull the cable, and it all worked out.”  The biggest challenges of this test, according to Graciosa and Bordeaux, were, first, to install the cables in the underground pipes; second, to ensure the conditions to operate the laser equipment at the central station, even if the air conditioning equipment in that extremely hot environment was not working. “We assembled a sort of mini-refrigerator to place the laser equipment on top and this was crucial, because the room temperature at the Jacarepaguá station would go up to nearly 70 degrees Celsius when the air conditioning stopped working.”   In fact, all the equipment used in the test was made in Brazil, and this unique familiarity with technology attracted the entire world’s attention. “This feat was even highlighted in the New York Times”,   says Bordeaux.

The history of optical communications in Brazil is full of such events up to the late 80’s. After the country’s industrial policy went through changes that replaced imports with the so-called competitive insertion, radical transformations were about to begin in the telecom industry. This sector’s privatization, including Telebrás, led the CPqD to be entirely re-structured; it was turned into a privately-held foundation, which became the basis for the creation, in 2001, of Padtec, initially a small company founded by a group of six people, including José Henrique de Oliveira, the company’s president until 2004. He was replaced by Jorge Salomão, one of the core members of that initial group, who had headed the department of optical communication innovations at CPqD for many years. He was also its president, and was able to overcome the huge difficulties that the company faced in 2002 and 2003. Ever since then, the company has grown significantly, with funding obtained from a major partner, the Banco Pactual bank.

“It is very difficult for a small company to sell equipment to the main telephone carriers, but we do”,  says Salomão. This indicates the market’s expectations that Padtec is here to stay and grow, in his opinion. In 2003, the company spent all of its reserves. In 2004, however, it doubled its revenues vs. the previous year and achieved the same results in the following years. Today, the company earns R$ 80 million and employs 150 people. In 2005, it created a device called Transponder Optical Transport Network (OTN), which is capable of increasing traffic along the optical fibers and substituting the multiplexes of synchronic digital hierarchy/ SDH. The company is now focusing on two other fronts: technology for enveloping information that passes through the optical fiber and that allows, at any point in its traffic, the correction of any possible degradation of this information. The idea is to make each light bundle transport 40 gigabits per second instead of 10 gigabits, within roughly one year. The objective is to make optical fiber communication less expensive and reach out to the end user, so that it ceases being a privilege for just a few. This will encourage DIY (do it yourself) technology. Brazil currently has one million km of optical fibers, but its history is still far from maturity.