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The Invisible Lightness of Beams

Company promotes Internet access via laser beams that zap through windows.


Look! Up in the sky, it's a ... well, actually, you can't see it. But it's there.

A company called Terabeam recently landed in Los Angeles and announced plans to "send invisible light beams through the air downtown."

Hoping to meet some UFO wackos, we trekked to a Wilshire Boulevard skyscraper and passed through a security checkpoint. Ascending to the 20th floor, we were greeted by humanoid creatures who--to our great disappointment--insisted they were from a Seattle suburb, not another galaxy.

Even so, Terabeam is an odd enterprise. Founded five years ago by an eccentric inventor, the company delivers high-speed Internet access via laser beams zapped through office windows. It might sound like science fiction, but Terabeam is actually borrowing technology developed by the military during the Cold War, when submarines used blue-green lasers to chat with satellites.

Now, an infrared version of that system is hailed as the solution to a problem that has vexed the telecommunications industry for years. In trying to wire the nation for lightning-fast transmission of movies, voice and other data, companies such as the now-bankrupt Global Crossing have buried thousands of miles of fiber-optic cable. But very few customers have been able to plug into the network. That's because the information superhighway becomes a dirt road inside most cities. Extending fiber-optic power to individual homes and businesses means ripping up streets and sidewalks, a time-consuming process that costs upward of $1 million per mile in downtown areas.

To bypass the roadblock, Terabeam and several competitors are selling "fiber optics without the fiber." They install space-age laser devices on high-rise rooftops and windowsills, then beam data through the sky, building to building. Think of it as an electronic version of the carrier pigeon, except this "pigeon" hauls enough information to fill a 747 and flies at the speed of light.

Like many a "revolutionary, paradigm-shattering, we-can-be-filthy-rich" technology, this one is stained with red ink. Lucent has poured $450 million into Terabeam, which laid off employees last year; Nortel and Qualcomm are backing rival AirFiber, also unprofitable.

Meanwhile, questions linger. Will the lasers cook birds in mid-flight? Does the system work in fog or through dirty windows? And, can a nearsighted person perform do-it-yourself Lasik eye surgery by staring into the laser?

Terabeam officials have heard these queries before--except the one about do-it-yourself eye surgery. Company boss Dan Hesse, who previously ran AT&T's Wireless division, insists the lasers are harmless to birds and humans: "You can look directly into it for as long as you want with no damage to your eye."

Uh, go right ahead, Dan. We'll take your word for it.

As for fog and other aerial impediments, Terabeam claims to have eliminated all the bugs. For example, in downtown Seattle, where the company debuted, laser transmitters were spaced close enough to their targets that the beams could slice through the city's thick fog.

Even when the Kingdome was imploded, the resulting cloud of dust had no effect on Terabeam's service, said company spokesman Lou Gellos.

But using infrared lasers can still be tricky. For starters, office windows come in hundreds of colors and glass styles, each of which diffuses the light beam differently. Terabeam has a lab that does nothing but test various types of mirrored glass so that the company's equipment installers can adjust the laser signal accordingly. Of course, they first have to find the beam, which is invisible. For that, Terabeam has developed a hand-held beam detector, which is similar to a stud finder but tracks infrared light.

Terabeam's customers include Microsoft, Seattle University and four of the city's big hotels, which use the laser feed to give guests super-quick Internet access.

Speaking of hotel guests, did we mention the Big Brother-style cameras hidden inside each laser unit? During service outages, the cameras relay pictures of the nearest laser transmitter to Terabeam headquarters. Thus, when a Seattle law firm lost service last year, Terabeam trouble-shooters instantly saw the problem: Someone had thrown a coat over the firm's laser unit.


Camera Solves Mystery: a Ship-Related Blip

A similar incident happened in New York City after Sept. 11, when Terabeam noticed a momentary blip in service between Merrill Lynch's Manhattan office and a branch across the Hudson River (Terabeam had set up the link after the attack on the World Trade Center severed underground fiber-optic cables). Trouble-shooters rewound the camera's tape and saw a Navy cruise ship mast gliding past, briefly blocking the laser.

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