Since the first installations of fiber optic networks more than 25 years ago, the goal of the fiber optic industry has been to install fiber optics all the way to the home. From an economic standpoint, fiber was most cost-effective in the long-distance networks. Fiber’s high bandwidth and low attenuation easily offset its higher cost. Compared to copper wire used in telephony, fiber could carry thousands of times more phone conversations hundreds of times further, making the cost of a phone connection over fiber only a few percent as much as transmitting over copper.

It took only a few years before fiber optics dominated the long-distance market. Crews buried cables underground or ran aerial cables on poles nonstop for a decade to upgrade long-distance service. At the same time, technology was developed for submarine cables. By the late 1980s, all overseas communications expansion was done by fiber optics, replacing copper cables and satellites. Today, virtually all long-distance communications is over the installed fiber optic network.

The next step was connecting local central offices, the link between subscribers and the switched phone network. Around the time the long-distance networks were being completed, consumer use of the Internet took off. Metropolitan phone networks became overloaded quickly and fiber optics was ready to provide the expansion capability. The scope of metropolitan fiber optic installations was obvious to anyone driving around town, as it was hard to drive anywhere without encountering roads torn up for the installation of conduit and fiber optic splicing trucks blocking the roadways.

Then the “bubble” burst. The Internet boom that caused the telecom bubble and thereby the fiber optic bubble caused the downfall of a tremendous number of companies and left the industry with a glut of installed fiber capacity and also fiber optic component manufacturing capacity. In a good illustration of capitalism at work, the cost of fiber optic components took a nosedive as supply outstripped demand. The bad news is a lot of people got hurt, but the good news is it set the stage for fiber optics next big application.

Fiber is now gaining acceptance in the final frontier of telephone networks, the “last mile”—the connection to the home. Many homes are connected with aging, low-performance copper telephone wire that cannot support DSL-connection speeds that allow phone companies to compete with the modems used by cable companies for broadband access. Phone companies are now realizing the only choice for upgrading the subscriber connection is fiber to the home (FTTH).

Low-priced components and new network architectures make it financially attractive for the first time. Besides component prices dropping as a result of oversupply, new network architectures have been developed that allow sharing expensive components for FTTH. A passive splitter that takes one input and broadcasts it to as many as 64 users cuts the cost of the links substantially. And since the market bust, fiber prices are dirt cheap. One analyst compared fiber prices to kite string and fishing line, both are more expensive than the current prices of top quality optical fiber.

Phone companies such as Verizon are committing billions of dollars to plans for connecting millions of home with fiber in the near future. And there may be an opportunity waiting for contractors.

Each home needs to be connected to the local central office with single-mode fiber, perhaps through a local splitter. Every home will have a single-mode fiber link pulled or strung aerially to the phone company cables running down the street, and a network interface device containing fiber optic transmitters and receivers will be installed on the outside of the house. The incoming cable needs to be terminated at the house, tested, connected to the interface and the service tested.

If any progress is to be made on FTTH connections, literally millions of connections must be made each year. If one installer can do two houses a day, 500 per year, then 2,000 installers will be needed to do a million homes. And if the phone companies only do a million homes a year, it will take about a century to complete the job, indicating that the pace of installation must be higher.

Right now, Verizon is training lots of people to install FTTH or FTTP (fiber to the premises, as they call it), and other telcos are watching the company’s progress carefully. Even the CATV companies are considering fiber to replace aging coax, since the price is right and performance unlimited.

Maybe this is an opportunity for contractors, the majority of whom already do fiber optic installations, although most are unfamiliar with single-mode fiber used by the telcos. Contractors should monitor the progress of the telcos FTTH programs, since thousands of installers will be needed to meet the aggressive goals the telcos are setting. FTTH is much simpler than the usual telco outside plant installation, too, bringing it within the capabilities of more contractors. EC

HAYES, president of the Fiber Optic Association, is also a VDV writer and trainer. Find him at www.JimHayes.com.