Tuesday, May 14, 2002

Appearing similar to a home satellite dish, a high-speed data transmitter and receiver, like this one being tested recently by Jeff Heubotter of Loea Communications Corp. on top of the Maui Tech Center, may go into production in 2003.

High-tech ‘radio’ may
boost industry on Kauai

By Anthony Sommer

LIHUE >> Loea Communications Corp. is beginning Kauai field experiments with new high-speed data transmission that could result in a major high-tech manufacturing facility on the Garden Island.

The product is a "fiber-optic cable without the cable," Loea officials say. You could easily mistake it for a television satellite dish. It doesn't even have a catchy name yet for marketing; company officials simply call it "the radio."

"The radio" is scheduled to go into limited production in 2003. All the company's offices and facilities will be on Kauai.

Instead of transmitting computer data through an underground fiber-optic cable, Loea is planning to use a transmitter and receiver to send data through the air, or "free space."

Unlike typical radio or television signals that are broadcast in all directions, Loea's signal will travel along a small "pencil beam." It operates at much higher frequencies, equivalent to those used by radar.

The average consumer is not likely to want or need one of Loea's "radios" for the home or small office. The market for the high-speed data link is large buildings such as hotels, hospitals and office complexes where workers use many computers. Loea plans to offer them a device that will work as well as or better than fiber optics with no need to dig trenches or bury cable.

If the product is a success, it will be built on Kauai in a factory with several hundred workers, Loea officials say.

Loea, which means "clever" in Hawaiian, is a new subsidiary of Trex Enterprises Corp., a San Diego-based company that already has a major presence in Hawaii. Its Maui facility has been working on thermal digital imaging for uses such as mammograms. Its Kauai laboratory develops and produces sophisticated lens coatings for the optical tracking equipment used at the Navy's Pacific Missile Range.

Trex is known mostly for its hiring practices. It seeks young scientists with doctorates in physics, chemistry and engineering who were born and raised in Hawaii. Most believed they would be forced to spend their careers on the mainland because of a lack of high-tech opportunities in Hawaii.

Bruce MacDonald, who has a doctorate in chemistry and has worked for Trex since 1983, opened the Kauai facility three years ago and is now the head of Loea.

"In the data field, one of the major problems is what is termed 'the last mile,' moving the data from the Internet service provider that is attached to the 'large pipe' that transmits huge amounts of data, to the institutional customer," MacDonald said.

"Right now, the state of the art is fiber-optic cable, but it's expensive and difficult to install. What we're developing is what we think will be the next generation beyond fiber optics."

"The radio" will be sold to institutions for about $10,000, roughly half the cost of a fiber-optic cable installation. The data will go through a server operated by the building manager and linked to dozens or hundreds of computers.

"One of the biggest potential early customers are resort hotels all over Hawaii," MacDonald said. "They are years behind hotels on the mainland in providing Internet access to their business guests, particularly at conventions. We think we have a simple and attractive solution for them that won't require digging up miles of streets."

Loea's device, which has a range of 10 miles, already is capable of transmitting 1.25 gigabytes of data per second. That's about 1,000 times faster than a household cable or digital subscriber line (DSL) hookup. It is the equivalent of most existing major trunk-line feeds and on a par with fiber-optic cable.

"Our goal is to get to 5 gigabytes per second within one to two years, and eventually to 10 gigabytes per second," MacDonald said.

Loea already has a test model linking the Maui High Tech Research Center with a radio tower eight miles away on Mount Haleakala. It is setting up a demonstration project linking the University of Hawaii's research facility at Coconut Island in Kaneohe Bay with the Marine Laboratory on Oahu. And it is installing a transmitter to link the Navy's tracking equipment atop Makaha Ridge on Oahu to the Pacific Missile Range on West Kauai.

MacDonald's current project is a series of field tests on Kauai.

"In one of our early tests, a spider built a nest right in the tube that links the transmitter and the antenna dish, and the equipment wouldn't work," MacDonald said. "The radio signal transmits through plastic, so we simply put a plastic shield in front of the tube to make it spider-proof.

"These are the kinds of things you learn only when you take new equipment out of the laboratory and set it up in the field just to watch what happens," MacDonald said.

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