Recent advances NEC has made in fibre optic equipment will mean cheaper and more efficient services by this time next year, the company has said.

Improvements made in tunable lasers will cut the cost of fibre optic equipment and help communications carriers deliver more efficient services, explained Hiroyuki Yamazaki, principal researcher at NEC's system platforms research laboratories.

While other companies have developed tunable lasers, NEC's version is far cheaper and so could be used to replace existing lasers used in fibre optic networks, said Yamazaki. "We think we could make the laser for about half the cost of any other competitor, and we want to put it on sale internationally," he said. He declined to say how much the laser might cost.

Other companies that have developed tunable lasers include Agility, Intel, Iolon and Santur.

Modern fibre optic networks operate on multiple wavelengths and the older varieties tend to use separate lasers for each wavelength. On top of maintaining these lasers, communications companies have to keep spares. Using tunable lasers means carriers can install just one type of laser instead of many, saving money, parts and inventory costs, said Yamazaki.

There are two main types of tunable lasers that are used to send light pulses through fibre optic cables. Some designs are based on a monolithic-type laser that integrates all the laser's components into a semiconductor chip. The second main type uses MEMS (microelectromechanical systems) technology which incorporates minute movable mirrors to adjust the laser wavelength.

Typically, monolithic-type lasers are complex to design and difficult to make, while MEMS-type tunable lasers tend to require maintenance to keep them performing efficiently, he said.

The NEC laser is built on a LSI (large-scale integrated circuit) process that NEC uses to make semi-conductor chips, so it is relatively easy to make at a low cost, while it is powerful enough and flexible enough to cater for the varied needs of fibre optics communications, he said.