Disco fever has taken hold at AT&T Bell Laboratories. Or make that DiSCO fever, for Distributed Switching with Centralized Optics. DiSCO is the prototype of a lightning-fast switching system that conveys calls with pulses of light instead of electricity. DiSCO switches, says AT&T, will break the bottleneck that exists when light waves traveling over optical fibers have to be converted into slower-moving electrons to go through today's electronic switches.

Last May, AT&T announced a prototype DiSCO switch that could take eight incoming fibers, each carrying thousands of calls, and patch them through to any one of eight outgoing fibers. Now it has quietly surpassed that with a 16-by-16 array--and more advances are in the works, the company says. The DiSCO comes in a brass package the size of a candy bar and could fit into a conventional AT&T switch, transforming it into a workhorse for big jobs such as high-quality videoconferencing. The first photonic switches, using DiSCO or another design, should hit the market by 1995, AT&T says.

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