It seems each year, optical fiber gains strength in the marketplace. Fiber’s strengths, its bandwidth and distance capabilities, along with its immunity to electrical interference, help it quietly gain converts.

Fiber’s biggest gains have been in connections directly to the home, with millions of new users connected in the last year. Certainly the slowdown in housing construction has affected greenfield installations around the United States, but Verizon, for example, is focusing on replacing its aging copper infrastructure with fiber as fast as resources allow.

Justification for replacing copper with fiber to the home (FTTH) is easy. Not only does fiber allow the service provider to offer more services that generate greater revenue, but it reduces maintenance of the network to practically nothing. Maintenance cost savings alone reportedly would pay for FTTH in less than 20 years. In addition, the enhanced revenue for high-speed Internet access—up to 175 megabits per second in some Verizon service areas—and the ability to offer advanced high-definition TV service, make the return on investment period for FTTH conversion much shorter.

FTTH suppliers promote all kinds of new equipment development, but one stands out and promises to make other fiber optic applications much simpler. Prefabricated fiber optic cable assemblies with weather-sealed connectors make installation of outside plant cabling much easier. These assemblies are truly plug-and-play, requiring no splicing or terminating. Prefab assemblies can be used in aerial or conduit installations, making them the perfect solution for applications such as campus and municipal networks.

For local area network (LAN) applications, it appears the copper versus fiber to the desktop battle may be over; both lost. While these two have been trading barbs over cost, technology and power, Wi-Fi networks have been developed to provide high quality connections at speeds that are more than adequate for most users, and security issues now have been addressed.

The move to wireless connectivity has become a no-brainer, as many corporate users now prefer laptops (with built-in Wi-Fi) to desktop computers for mobility. Many people also own portable mobile devices—such as smartphones, iPhones and Blackberries with wireless access—that are becoming almost as powerful as a laptop.

Within the enterprise LAN, the backbone is primarily fiber, with new installations mostly using OM3 laser-optimized 50/125 variety capable of being upgraded from today’s 1 to 10 gigabits per second to 40 or perhaps even 100 in the future. Category 5e or Cat 6 to the desktop is still cheaper. The new generation of higher bandwidth wireless requires more access points, which have traditionally been connected over copper and recently have been powered over copper, as well. But there seems to be some question about whether adequate power for these new wireless access points can be carried over the same copper cables that must provide gigabit Ethernet connectivity. Fiber may prove to be a better choice here, too.

Another big market for cabling is the data center, an application important enough to recently get its own cabling standard. Connecting servers, storage devices and routers is the big application for 10 gigabit systems, and users have three choices for cabling: simple coax for short links, fiber or augmented Cat 6.

There has been a lot of concern about the amount of power consumed by servers, as high-speed computers and communications links need much energy. Estimates of server power consumption in the United States is about 2 percent of all power produced in the country. Google, the largest single user, has moved many of its servers to the banks of the Columbia River in Oregon to take advantage of cheaper local hydroelectric power and is equipping its San Francisco Bay Area facilities with giant photovoltaic arrays.

In the data center, fiber wins hands-down. A 10-gigabit fiber transceiver uses less than 1 watt of power, while a copper transceiver uses 5–10 watts. Copper links in the data center consume much more power, require larger power supplies and require equally larger amounts of cooling. Coax seems to be the choice in the data center for short connections (less than 10 meters), and fiber is used for all others.

Adding the rising number of municipal and government data, surveillance closed-circuit TV and traffic control systems on fiber, greater fiber usage in industrial applications, and utility systems for grid management, the market for fiber optic contracting services has never looked better.

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