How Corning Is Lighting Up New Markets

Corning, the upstate New York TV glass specialist, is once again betting on fiber optic cable to gain ground.
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) -- After a look back at its own history,


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sees a glow in glass beyond the flat screen.

Corning's LCD TV and computer screen business has been the big sales story for the glassmaker in the past three years, but the sector's breakneck growth will temper with time. As it has for the past 159 years, the Corning, N.Y., stalwart is pushing glass technology forward, finding a new niche to help take up the slack.

And Marty Curran, a senior VP and general manager for Corning's Optical Fiber division, is focused on the resurgence of the telecommunications segment.

Corning's Marty Curran

Curran runs the firm's fiber optic business, the unit that supplies phone companies with cable containing thread-thin glass that carry light waves for high-capacity network connections. Last year, the telecommunications supply unit accounted for $1.7 billion -- nearly a third -- of Corning's total revenue.

To help stimulate fiber sales, Corning -- along with optical gearmaker


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-- is demonstrating 40 gigabit and 100 gigabit optical transport technology at a cable industry show this week. The so-called low-attenuation fiber can carry signals greater distances without the need for lots of amplifiers to electronically boost the signals.

"The fiber is more expensive, but well worth it to take electronics out of the system," says Curran, who sees a big opportunity for the new fiber technology outside the U.S., in less-wired markets like China, Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

Looking ahead at this year, Curran says that fiber sales may remain flat or dip slightly from 2009 levels as demand cools in China, the world's largest fiber optic market.

"China could soften in the second half of year," says Curran, "but we are looking for the continued economic recovery and growth in areas like India to pick up."

In 2000, Corning's fiber sales were $5.1 billion and 72% of the company's total revenue. The company's fiber optic bubble burst in 2001 with the collapse of the Internet building boom. Business fell off a cliff in 2002 after orders for fiber optic gear and cable dried up. Cable plants in Australia, Germany and Concord, N.C., were closed, staff was let go and the value of the business was written down.

Fiber sales hit a post-bubble low of $1.4 billion in 2003, but since then orders have improved. In 2007, mothballed facilities were revived and fiber production was expanded in places like Shanghai. Fiber marked about 31% of Corning's total sales last year.

A big reason for the recent rebound is China's communications infrastructure construction.

So what makes China's current Net building boom different than the U.S. Internet gold rush at the turn of the century?

"In 2000 lots of people were showing up with satchels of dough, building it and hoping they would come," says Curran. "It's more rational now."

Still, growth for Corning will have to come from somewhere other than China, from new markets beyond the Internet backbone.

Curran is encouraged by areas where fiber is replacing old-line copper cable -- data centers and even offices where fiber-to-desktop could be huge. He also points out that Corning isn't threatened by the expansion of WiFi along with the capacity growth from 3G and 4G wireless.

"We believe fiber and wireless are complementary," says Curran. "Everything has to run back to the network and back in the ground, and that means business for us."

--Written by Scott Moritz in New York

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