Every year, I review the hot applications and technology that affect contractors working with fiber optics. Last year, controversies over bend-insensitive fiber and multimode testing were big news. The controversies, however, are already blowing over, as they are simply “growing pains” as new fiber optic technologies were introduced. The real news this year was the growing importance of fiber optics in supporting a major shift in communications and technology—the mobile movement.
Mobile devices are becoming the dominant force in consumer and commercial technology. Smartphones and tablets are selling at such a pace that they surpassed PC sales in 2011 and are expected to double the sales of PCs in the next two years. While much of the use of these devices is personal, they are becoming must-have tools for business, especially tablets like the iPad. The Fiber Optics Association (FOA) has created iPad apps for self-study programs and for simplifying fiber optic network design and installation. And, by the way, I wrote this column on an iPad!
The explosion of mobile-device usage has created an enormous need for bandwidth in wireless systems. Wireless towers have sprouted dozens of new antennas to provide users with the bandwidth they demand, and fiber is being installed not only to the towers but even up the towers to support all those new antennas. There is so much work in installing fiber to wireless towers today that contractors are specializing in the field and requiring focused training on fiber for wireless.
The user preference for mobile devices has also affected the structured cabling market. Data indicates that desktop computers are passé, and even laptops are losing out to tablets. The big loser, however, is cabling to the desktop. Wi-Fi now provides the bandwidth most users require, leaving engineering and CAD/CAM as almost the only applications for wired desktops (many of those are already fiber, as are network backbones). Cabling for data centers is increasingly fiber with a movement toward single-mode for 100 Gbps links.
On the home front, fiber to the home (FTTH) continues to grow, led by smaller local groups rather than the telcos. Digital subscriber line (DSL) appears to have reached a “brick wall” as the copper pairs available for use with DSL are in such bad condition that they will not support higher speeds. FTTH is becoming the only solution for real broadband to the home, and to drive the final nail into copper’s coffin, FTTH at gigabit speeds became available last year.
The energy industry has become another big growth area for fiber. Utilities are upgrading their networks to create a “smart grid,” and alternative-energy sources, such as solar and wind, are growing rapidly. All of these applications depend on fiber for communications and management.
It is notable that both these rapidly growing markets are outside plant (OSP) fiber optic applications. Most electrical contractors do low-voltage and fiber optic work, but many are not as experienced in OSP work as they are in premises. The FOA has anticipated this challenge and created an OSP program to provide the proper training and certifications.
What about those technological and standards controversies over bend-insensitive fiber and multimode testing? Why did manufacturers consider them to be so important that they hyped them so vigorously, confusing everybody? Remember that “standards” are, as a former head of one committee said, “nothing more than mutually agreed-upon specifications for product development.” When one company or organization introduces a new technology, it creates a hornet’s nest of activity in the committees until some agreement on how to standardize it is made. Having sat through several decades of standards meetings, I can assure you they are not dull—often more like soap operas!
Both these issues emphasize the difficulties of the standards process. Standards committees work hard to keep up with changes in technology, but sometimes standardizing something too soon is much worse—and much more confusing—than being patient until the technology is mature.
At least one standards issue was handled sensibly. The National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) and the FOA agreed to make the NECA/FOA 301 fiber optic installation standard available free to all users. This American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard is vital for fiber optics, defining how to install a fiber optic network in a “neat and workmanlike” manner. Due to the importance of NECA/FOA 301 to the industry, it was decided that offering it free was the best thing that the two organizations could do.
If you don’t yet have a copy of NECA/FOA 301, contact the FOA at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on how to get your free copy.
HAYES is a VDV writer and educator and the president of The Fiber Optic Association. Find him at www.JimHayes.com.