Ethernet and Cat 5 have gone together for so long they’ve become almost inextricably paired. But just as it’s possible to have beans with something other than cornbread, or peanut butter with something other than jelly, it’s possible to have a local area network (LAN) with something other than Cat 5 wiring.

Such as, for instance, optical fiber. The markets for optical LAN are still fairly small, but there’s enough enthusiasm to inspire a set of fiber system vendors to create a trade group: the Association for Passive Optical LAN.

The founding members of the Association are 3M, Corning, IBM, Tellabs, TE Connectivity, Leidos (formerly SAIC), and Zhone Technologies.

Fiber has some clear advantages. It is roughly comparable in price, and can last for 50 years or more. Fiber requires vastly less infrastructure to support, and significantly less maintenance. It is far more difficult to tap, and is impervious to EMP (electro-magnetic pulse) disruption.

If there's a problem with optical LANs, though, it is that traditional LANs are so cheap and easy, there isn’t much impetus to do anything different, like peanut butter and Nutella, for example.

Overall cost savings can run into eye-popping territory: 75- to 80 percent or more, however.

Motorola tried to make a go of optical LAN four years ago. Looking for a big enough market to justify the business, Motorola aimed for an obvious target: the enterprise LAN market.

While the Association for Passive Optical LAN says there is interest from the enterprise market, the biggest opportunities today might still be niche markets.

Zhone Technologies, for one, is beginning to build a nice little business doing optical LAN for niche customers for whom the advantages of fiber are salient: military and hospitality. These two opportunities might not be huge, but then Zhone is smaller than Motorola and can afford to cater to them, McCaskey explained.

Hotels are now obliged to offer wi-fi, but as anyone who spends enough time in hotels has learned, the contention for bandwidth can render wireless access difficult and sometimes even unusable.

The contention for resources gets exacerbated as hotel guests increasingly eschew in-room VOD in favor of using their own media, either slinging content from home or tapping in to web-based services such as Netflix and Vudu.

Some hotels reported that their occupancy rates were suffering because their wi-fi access was so poor, McCaskey said.

One answer would be to add more equipment, but few hotels have the space to allocate to additional racks of gear. Fiber becomes an obvious solution, McCaskey said.

Meanwhile, the military market long ago realized that the security of fiber is superior, making optical LANs attractive just for those reasons.

“The military told us, ‘we like your GPON stuff,’ and they wanted us to turn it toward local area networks,” McCaskey said. The military told Zhone it wanted power-over-Ethernet on optical network terminals (ONT), so Zhone built one to order.  

And fiber is not just for permanent military installations. Consider mobile installations, McCaskey said. The ease of set-up combined with the security advantages make optical LANs very attractive.