Most customers for fiber optic installation expect the installer to be more knowledgeable about and experienced with fiber optics than they are. That is not just because most users are new to fiber optics or rarely contract for fiber optic installations, but because they have other things to worry about, like running a large computer network, security system or their own business. They look for someone who will not only do a fiber optic installation, but can guide them through the process, providing support before, during and after installation, in a way that inspires confidence.
The competent fiber optic contractor will be able to work with the customer in each installation through six stages: design, installation, testing, troubleshooting, documentation and restoration. Each stage has its own requirements for knowledge and skills.
At the beginning of the project, most customers know they need to use fiber because of its capabilities in bandwidth, distance or immunity from interference. Many rely on contractors to install and assist in the design of the network, help choose components and vendors, and educate them on the technology. If a contractor can show the customer design options—such as how an all-fiber LAN cabling system can sometimes be less expensive than a fiber-backbone with copper to the desktop or even an all copper network—it can inspire confidence in the installer that can positively affect the customer’s decision on who should get the job. One way to demonstrate this is to use aids such as the TIA Fiber Optic LAN Section’s fiber vs. copper comparison model (www.FOLS.org).
Once the contractor has the assignment, it is time to help the customer choose the right kinds of cables, connectors and hardware for the installation. The contractor should know what components meet industry standards such as TIA-568, which will ensure interoperability and future expandability. Unlike copper cabling, the TIA standard includes many options on what kinds of fiber optic cable to choose, which fibers make sense, and what connector types and termination methods to use.
For example, two types of 50/125 micron multimode fiber are now available in addition to the 62.5/125 fiber that has been used for more than 15 years. Choosing one of these new 50/125 fibers will allow networks to work at today’s gigabit rates and be upgraded to 10 gigabits in the future, a perfect example how a contractor that stays up to date on fiber optic technology can gain the confidence of and enhance the company’s appeal to customers.
The customer probably doesn’t do many fiber optic installations, so the experienced contractor must help choose the vendor. Experience with particular product types and vendors will allow the contractor to assist the customer and choose products that make the installation easier.
The design is critical to the whole installation, so a complete design must cover the rest of the phases of the job also, as will be noted below. It is worth mentioning that experience has led us to be wary of architects and engineers when it comes to fiber optics. Many learned about fiber optics 20 years ago and never took a refresher course. A knowledgeable contractor armed with the latest standards should not be shy in reminding the customer and their other vendors that fiber optics is a dynamic business that demands users stay current.
The actual installation process can involve more than just putting in and terminating cable. If the contractor is knowledgeable, the user will sometimes ask the contractor to purchase, receive, inspect and bring components to the work site also, which can be another good source of revenue for the contractor. Having full control of the materials process can also make life easier for the contractor, as contractors have a better chance to keep on schedule rather than depending on a customer who has many other priorities. Plus, a contractor can choose familiar components, facilitating the actual installation process.
The actual installation should be easy for an experienced contractor. The customer wants the job done quickly and with as little disruption to his or her business as possible. Sometimes working outside the customer’s usual business hours is an issue, as it minimizes distractions to their work force and disruptions to the customer’s business processes. Some data processing companies demand installations be done during off-hours to prevent inadvertent problems affecting their usual business operations.
Of course, the customer expects the installation to be done in a “neat and workmanlike manner.” The National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) and The Fiber Optic Association (FOA) have cooperated in creating a standard that defines what that means in fiber optic installations. NECA 301-2004, Installing and Testing Fiber Optic Cables, is available from NECA. This document is a good reference for both the contractor and the user, as it covers all aspects of the installation, including the topics we cover here, and is designed as a reference standard for contracts on installation jobs.
Testing provides the customer with proof that the contractor did the job as specified, so it is important to make sure the design phase covers how to test the installation. It is rare that a customer understands fiber optic testing, so reference to the NECA 301 standard is a good practice.
The biggest concern is that the user know what is relevant for testing. It’s not unusual to find a user calling for OTDR testing on short premises or campus cables, which is rarely appropriate and extremely expensive. We even know contractors who did OTDR testing because it was called for in the customer specification, but the data was misinterpreted and the installation rejected erroneously. The customer should be given references to standards like TIA-526-14 or TIA-568-B.3 TSB-140 that show insertion loss is the test required for all networks.
It is not unusual to have a few problems in an installation; customers expect that. Some can be avoided by proper planning at the design stage, for example, if the customer wants 36 fibers in the backbone, purchasing a cable with a few extra (and inexpensive) fibers allows for damage to a fiber or two at splice or termination points without causing major rework and installation delays or cost overruns.
Plan during the bid stage to purchase extra connectors to replace those that require retermination during the installation. Site inspections can pinpoint potential problem areas and supervisors and installers should be briefed on plans to prevent difficulties with the installation. Crews doing the testing should be quick to respond if a problem crops up, as they are usually the only ones who can assess the damage and find an immediate solution.
Documentation is what the customer expects to receive as proof the job was done correctly and will speed up the process of payment to the contractor. Documentation includes drawings of cable runs, tables of connection data and test data on every fiber in the cable plant. Documentation is expensive. Make absolutely sure you know exactly what the customer expects and be prepared to provide it in a format the customer can understand. Remember to include it as a line item in your bid. Use the TIA 606 documentation standard for premises cabling or the software provided by some tester manufacturers if that is agreeable with the customer.
The usefulness of documentation goes beyond proving the installation was done correctly. It is needed for moves, adds and changes (MACs) and restoration. If the customer agrees, you should keep a copy for your records (adding photos if possible) to use if you are ever called on to work on the same installation again.
Most customers don’t expect to have problems or to have you help them fix them, but it is only an oversight on their part. Remind them during the design phase that problems can occur and planning ahead can alleviate the pain of restoration. Suggest purchasing excess cable and storing it on-site to replace broken or cut cables or to splice into long runs after a cable cut.
Keeping a file on the installation, detailing all the components used and the complete documentation can help both you and them. They will know who to call for assistance and you will have the information you need to promptly troubleshoot the problem and implement a fix.
Experience and certifications
When evaluating contractors for a fiber optic installation, users are looking for someone with knowledge and experience in similar jobs. Most will look for references from previous customers, so keep a file on each installation you do, and remember to ask customers if you can use them as a reference. Customers want to feel confident that the workers are competent, so certifications like the FOA CFOT (www.thefoa.org) used in the National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee telecom apprenticeship program are a worthwhile investment.
Here is an old story I heard many years ago at a sales seminar. The president of a company that manufactured electric drills told his employees that market research had determined that his customers did not want to buy drills, but what they wanted was holes. Selling drills required showing customers how their products made better holes, rather than focusing on the product itself.
The lesson here is that customers don’t want to purchase fiber optic components or a fiber optic installation, what they want is the best fiber optic cable plant for their network, and the contractor that they believe will provide them with the best fiber optic cable plant will get the job. EC
HAYES is a VDV writer and trainer and the president of The Fiber Optic Association. Find him at www.JimHayes.com.