Those involved in fiber optics are incurable optimists. Market forecasts always show upward trends and promise that fiber is going to replace copper wire or rebuff wireless and whatever other alternative methods of communications are currently being hyped. Even the bubble bursting in 2001 caused only a short pause in the optimism.
I have to admit that things are looking up. Two major developments have pushed fiber’s cause in the last year and show signs of positive growth in the coming year. Those developments are 10 Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) and fiber to the home (FTTH). Neither are bankable just yet.
Fiber optics has always been popular in the premises cabling market for backbone connections and in the data center. Perhaps as much as 75 percent of those connections are already using fiber optics.
When Gigabit Ethernet was introduced, the cost of using fiber or copper was about the same, considering you needed a new version of Category (Cat) 5 to support GbE.
But as with all electronics, the cost of GbE transceivers using enhanced Cat 5 (Cat 5e) has declined until it has become a standard feature of high-end PCs, making fiber more costly for desktop connections.
The technology of 10GbE is much more difficult for cabling. Cat 6 simply cannot do the job. Cat 6 is being “augmented” to increase the performance, with a need for performance up to 500 MHz to allow reliable signal transmission.
But high performance cabling has a price. Cables are so consistently made that crosstalk for a pair in one cable to the equivalent pair in another cable becomes a significant cause of signal degradation. It is too early to know what the installation issues will be.
Perhaps the Europeans have the right solution; use a shielded twisted pair cable. Americans, however, are trying to avoid this method, due to expensive components and difficult installation.
Fiber optics is in a generational transition also, with the first new offering of multimode fibers in 15 years. Manufacturers are offering a new generation of laser-optimized fibers that allow significantly better performance at about the same price. This fiber, which was used for laser-based long-distance networks before singlemode fiber was available, comes in two grades and will allow use at 10 gigabits per second and higher in premises and campus networks.
The second big development in fiber optics is the actual deployment of fiber to the home or premises (FTTH or FTTP). It has been the ultimate goal of fiber in telecommunications, as the connections to the subscriber represent 80 percent of the total amount of cable installed. The common telephone service line has outlived its usefulness in most regions of the country, unable to support advanced services.
The desirability of offering high-speed Internet access and TV content has driven several major phone companies to start offering fiber to the home.
Even where fiber is not being installed, conduit for its eventual installation is included in the construction of many new homes around the country.
While the telephone companies and CATV operators are doing some initial installations, many municipalities tired of waiting are planning their own FTTH networks.
If only technical obstacles were the lone impediment to fiber winning in these two applications. The problem with fiber acceptance in premises networks continues to be the prejudices of designers, architects and engineers toward copper cabling.
Even cabling trainers like BICSI perpetrate the prejudice against fiber optics. While BICSI has 32 technical committees keeping up with developments in specific topics like wireless, electromagnetic compatibility and audio-visual systems, fiber is not even on their agenda.
When it comes to FTTH, lobbyists from the local telephone and CATV companies are working overtime to make it more difficult for anyone else, especially municipalities, to install FTTH networks that would compete with them, even when they have no immediate plans to build their own network.
Several so-called “telecommunications deregulation” bills currently being considered in the U.S. Congress are cleverly disguised attempts to handcuff anyone but the current telcos or CATV operators from building new networks.
The key to fiber’s victory in these two battles is the end-user. If network managers balk at installing yet another generation of copper cabling and end-users get tired of waiting for the benefits of high speed connections to the home, fiber may finally get its chance. EC
HAYES is a VDV writer and trainer and the president of The Fiber Optic Association. Find him at www.JimHayes.com.