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An industry of shining lights

You could take a strand of optical fiber and use it zap 100,000 Web pages a second clear across the country. Or you could take several hundred strands of fiber and make a fake Christmas tree that glows in freaky shades of magenta and turquoise. It's the second application of the technology at work in Sterling Inc.'s fiber-optic Christmas trees, including a $140 54-inch model and a $90 36-inch version available at the Christmas Corner shop in the Prudential Center shopping arcade and many other area stores. For $90, there's a fiber-optic tree inside a snow dome that also plays Christmas carols.


It might run the risk of photonic overkill, but you could crown your fiber-optic tree with a 12-inch fiber-optic angel ornament, powered by a halogen light and available at Target for $15. And if you're already thinking ahead to Valentine's Day, consider Christmas Corner's 10-flower fiber-optic rose display for $25.

Sterling, based in Kansas City, Mo., has specialized in Christmas products since 1957, when it launched its first snow-in-a-can product. Today it offers more than 4,000 products, most of them, like the trees, manufactured at plants in East Asia. In the trees, the optical fibers are painted green and worked into plastic branches, with luminous color flowing from the tips of the "needles."

Before a dot-com-era glut of fiber-optic capacity globally drove the industry into a deep funk -- more than 120 million miles' worth was installed from 2001 to 2003 -- Massachusetts had emerged as a hotbed of companies making fiber-optic cables, components, and switches.

Some big names include Sycamore Networks of Chelmsford, Corning's Lasertron and NetOptix units, and Lucent Technologies Inc. facilities in North Andover and Sturbridge. Nortel Networks spent $1.4 billion buying optical-laser start-up CoreTek Technologies Inc. of Wilmington two years ago. Start-up Verrillon Inc. raised more than $25 million to open a new specialty fiber manufacturing plant in North Grafton last year.

Tree makers and telecom vendors may both be shining light through fibers. But, as Corning vice president Dan Collins notes, "To compare the fiber in a fiber-optic Christmas tree to the kinds of high-performance telecommunications products we make is like comparing a paper airplane to an F-16."

The fiber strands in a tree carry just one shade of light emanating from a color wheel in the base for three or four feet. But telecom fibers may carry 10 to 40 streams, each moving 10 billion bits of digital data every second, or the equivalent of millions of phone calls and e-mails. And the fibers carry those light pulses for 40 to 60 miles before they have to be amplified or regenerated.

Collins notes that the trees use fibers made of plastic comparable to swizzle sticks, while Corning optical fiber consists of strands of ultrafine glass thinner than a human hair.

And you sure wouldn't want to hook up an Internet switch to a fiber-optic Christmas tree, Collins adds.

With laser-based telecom applications, Collins says, "That light is so intense that it would literally burn you if it came out of the fibers being used in a tree."

Peter J. Howe can be reached at

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