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A method using attenuated total reflection (ATR) as an intensity modulator to excite the surface plasma wave on the interface is proposed by Sinorbox and Gordon [Appl. Opt. 20, 1491 (1981)]. The characteristics of this intensity modulator can be described in detail by using the dispersion relation and conservation of momentum. The cutoff frequency response of the ATR modulator is limited by the temporal damping, i.e., the reciprocal of lifetime of the surface plasma waves. Meanwhile, the response of this modulator depending on the variation of the depth of an air gap with fixed bias is also discussed.