Some cabling industry stakeholders predict the imminent death of copper cabling, while others disagree. However, most agree that fiber optical networks are taking a large bite out of the new network market.


Optical fibers are extremely thin strands of silica glass that transmit light from one end to the other with minimal loss, according to the Fiber Optics Technology Consortium (FOTC) of the Telecommunications Industry Association. A laser or light-emitting diode (LED) transmits light to a light-sensitive receiver that converts the signal back into a digital transmission, making fiber optic cables very useful in data transmission over long distances without any attenuation.


The growing concerns of safety and security with the use of modern, sophisticated technologies are fueling the market for fiber optics, which is expected to reach $290 million in 2017, according to Transparency Market Research.


“Fiber optic networks offer inherently better security functionality, and they are more difficult to hack into,” said Rodney Casteel, technical manager, Commscope Enterprise Solutions, Hickory, N.C. 


Copper emits electromagnetic interference that can be tapped into by a hacker without logging onto the network. 


“Since fiber signals carry data with photons and not electrons and don’t leave the fiber itself, a hacker would need to have physical access to the fiber cable to tap into it,” Casteel said.


The speed and bandwidth of fiber optic networks drive this re-emerging market. According to Steve Ferguson, vice president of sales for AFL, Spartanburg, S.C., both consumers and businesses need to move increasingly larger amounts of data to communicate and transact business.


“As data networks’ need to operate and move data at ever-faster speeds grows, fiber is becoming the best choice for fulfilling that need,” he said.


Fiber optic networks speeds are reaching levels never seen before. For example, according to Robert Reid, senior product development manager in the fiber products division at Panduit Corp., Tinley Park, Ill., Ethernet speeds in data centers can be as low as 1 gigabit per second (Gbps), while most of them are operating at 10 Gbps. However, 40 Gbps is gaining in use, while speeds up to 100 Gbps, 400 Gbps and even 1.6 terabits per second are on the horizon.


Other market drivers include the decreased cost of fiber optic networks, including the fiber itself, panels, connectors, etc.; a longer lifespan than copper; a smaller footprint; increased scalability and less maintenance and system downtime; and higher resilience and robustness. 


“The growth of wireless technology has also stimulated the resurgence of fiber optic networks to transfer the cellular-­generated data to its final location,” Ferguson said.


While there are many benefits to fiber optic networks, but there are barriers to more widespread implementation, as well.


“Copper currently meets the needs of many enterprises,” Casteel said. 


Copper also supports power over Ethernet (PoE) applications, while fiber does not currently support power. Most desktop and laptop computers don’t come standard with optical ports at this time, and there are still significant costs to build a new fiber optic network than to use an existing copper one.


“Costs to build into rural areas can be high because of the distances involved and the need for infrastructure,” Ferguson said.


Electrical contractors (ECs) need to realize that fiber optic technology is expanding rapidly with standards creators working on the next-generation speeds.


“Fiber is going to be around for a long time. Single-mode fiber isn’t even close to reaching its highest bandwidth capabilities,” Casteel said.


Ferguson said ECs also need to know that optical technology has evolved and that fiber optic cable is no longer fragile.


“It can be pulled, buried and worked with just like copper,” he said. 


For example, large-diameter, high-strength plastic clad fiber, like hook-up wire, is easy to prepare and terminate using handheld tools.


“Training takes minutes and help to alleviate any ‘fear of fiber,’” Reid said.


It also is important to know that today’s fiber optic networks no longer require specialized expertise, and ECs that are completely unfamiliar with it can access many, varied training opportunities to learn more about the technology and installation solutions, such as plug-and-play, splice-on connectors and fiber optic cables that can withstand tighter bend radii.


“Fiber optic cables are used in a greater number of applications today and are more readily available,” Ferguson said.


In addition, emerging lensed technologies (where the cable connectors don’t actually touch) in high-end, state-of-the-art data centers will enable contractors to shift connections more readily.


To meet the growing demand for data, fiber optic networks will be used more frequently, according to Casteel.


“Speeds will continue to increase to meet the growing hunger for data, and fiber will continue to get closer and closer to the end-user,” he said.