In the past year, fiber optics underwent some important developments, some technical and some market-related. For those of you working in fiber optic network design and installation, the changes present opportunities and challenges.


On the technology side, network speeds continue to increase and create challenges for cabling. Copper proponents are trying to make Category 8 work as a short-distance option for data centers. Multimode fiber is also facing problems with bandwidth in local area networks (LANs) and data centers for speeds greater than 10 gigabits per second (Gbps).


Many users and installers are not happy with the large number of fibers required by parallel optics (8 to 20 fibers per channel) at 40 and 100 Gbps and have switched to single-mode fiber with wavelength division multiplexing (WDM) over two fibers. The multimode people decided they could do that too. A new generation of multimode fiber allows WDM for up to four wavelength channels on a pair of fibers.


The increasing use of fiber has led to some interesting developments in cables. This year, vendors have released high-fiber-count cables using special bend-insensitive fibers with smaller diameter coatings. These products can pack almost 2,000 fibers in a cable less than 1 inch in diameter. It’s a trend.


Beyond that, the last year has seen dozens of new products that promise to be better, faster and cheaper. It’s up to the users to determine whether that pays off in their installations.


But the real news for contractors is in the expanding markets for fiber optics. Whether your specialty is premises or outside plant (OSP) installation, there are many new opportunities to keep you busy.


The phenomenal growth of the Internet drives much of the fiber market. Increased traffic requires more long-distance fiber, more local fiber and more fiber in data centers. The impact of Google Fiber offering gigabit fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) in an increasing number of regions of the country has driven public interest and demand for fiber. It has stimulated telcos and cable TV companies to upgrade by building fiber deeper into their networks if not all the way to the home.


One of the strongest movements we have seen is a grassroots effort to build fiber networks. As a result of all the publicity about the power utility FTTH program and Google Fiber in Chattanooga, Tenn., people are aware fiber provides better Internet service. We have been seeing apartment complexes, subdivisions, small towns, large towns and even a whole state (Kentucky) committing to building their own fiber networks.


Likewise, the growth in data traffic on smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices is creating new markets for fiber. Cell towers are being connected into the phone network with fiber backhaul, and fiber is even being used to connect antennas on the tower to the base. Facilities such as sports arenas and convention centers that host large crowds are being equipped with distributed antenna systems (DASs) that may allow up to 1,000 antennas connected with fiber.


Schools, office buildings and commercial complexes are being upgraded for cellular service and Wi-Fi to connect all of the occupants’ mobile devices. Changes in federal regulations mean more schools and educational facilities qualify for grants to pay for upgrades. At the same time, installations are getting LAN upgrades, some with passive optical LANs (OLANs) based on FTTH technology, especially in government facilities. If not passive OLANs, users who are upgrading are installing fiber backbones capable of 100-gigabit to 1-terabit speeds.


At the grassroots level, Fiber Optics Association (FOA) schools are telling us the demand for training and trained personnel is growing rapidly. But this is not your father’s fiber optic industry. Driven by the changes in the marketplace, the original reasons for adoption of fiber optics to replace copper and microwave links, the capability for greater bandwidth and distance, are moving the industry more toward single-mode fiber.


OSP networks have been all single-mode fiber for 30 years because of the bandwidth and distance advantages of single-mode. However, premises networks are increasingly moving to single-mode. Partly it’s because of the incredible speeds of LAN backbones and data center switches, but, in addition, it’s due to the familiarity with only single-mode fiber of the manufacturers and workers for applications like DAS, even as they move indoors.


What we have learned from the past year is there is plenty of business installing fiber optics, but contractors need to get their workers trained for single-mode installation and gear up accordingly. That’s what I’ll be writing about in the next few months.