Before I write this column each year, I contemplate the events of the past year and try to determine the direction of the market. The previous year seems to have been one of new challengers to traditional technology. Some of those challengers appear to be quite strong, sensible solutions to evolving markets, while some seem less so or perhaps even downright nonsensical.

Data centers

Let’s start with cabling for data centers. Data centers are a fast-growing market and a good one for electricians who do low-voltage cabling work. Data centers involve a complicated interactive design of electrical, HVAC and cabling to be efficient. Most data centers today operate with networks at 1 or 10 gigabits per second (Gbps). At 1 Gbps, copper is a no-brainer, needing only plain, old “Cat 5e” for 100-meter (m) links, while fiber offers longer reach and lower power at slightly higher cost. At 10 Gbps, you need Cat 6a and equipment that uses a lot of electrical power, so fiber becomes the cabling of choice for many data centers.

When you get above 10 Gbps, things get more complicated. If you want to use 40 or 100 Gbps today, you have a number of choices using single-mode or multimode fiber. The single-mode versions only require two fibers for each link since it uses wavelength-division multiplexing (WDM). Multimode fiber links, however, are bandwidth-limited and require using parallel transmission of multiple 10-Gbps links with two fibers each. This means, for example, that a 100-Gbps multimode link needs 20 fibers, making the cable plant expensive and complicated to manage.

And, of course, the copper cable suppliers won’t give up. They are working on a new generation of unshielded twisted-pair (UTP) cable, which they call “Cat 8.” The Cat 8 proposal is strictly for 40 Gbps, works only over links shorter than traditional UTP cabling, and is not compatible with prior cabling hardware, unlike other UTP cables. Even some copper advocates wonder if this is a sensible approach.

Finally, Intel and Corning have announced a new option for data center cabling. It uses a proprietary transceiver design by Intel that can be integrated using its semiconductor processes. It provides multiple 25-Gbps links and a unique connector and cable with 64 fibers to create 800-Gbps links. We will have to wait to see how long it takes to reach production.

LANs and premises cabling

Most local area networks (LANs) today are based on traditional structured cabling standards. Backbones are copper or fiber, and the copper runs to desktops, at least desktops still using cabling connections; many users already are using wireless exclusively. While fiber is widely used in the backbone, fiber to the desktop never took off, especially since it required buying media converters to connect devices with copper ports to the fiber cabling.

But over the last few years, a new LAN architecture using all fiber has emerged and has become widely accepted. These optical LANs (OLANs) are not based on traditional telecom designs adopted by structured cabling standards more than 20 years ago. They are based on the new telecom standards used for fiber to the home (FTTH). With more than 100 million FTTH subscribers installed in the last few years, the cost of equipment for FTTH has plummeted, and new fiber optic components have been developed to facilitate its installation.

The early adopters for OLANs were U.S. government agencies and the military. They have always liked fiber for its security, and FTTH is even better because it is encrypted. These early installations have proven OLAN equipment manufacturer claims. OLANs are cheaper than traditional structured cabling, require much less space in a building, reach longer distances for campuses and use much less energy to operate. Now colleges, hospitals, libraries, public buildings and private companies—even the new TIA headquarters—are choosing OLANs.

OLANs use some technology new to many premises cabling contractors, starting with single-mode fiber that requires new field-termination procedures. The Fiber Optics Association (FOA) has been working with OLAN suppliers to develop a new training curriculum and certification for OLANs that will be offered through FOA-approved schools.

What else is new?

Data center and LAN work were top trends this year. Fiber for wireless is very active. Growth continued in the markets for fiber to the cellular tower and up to the antenna to support 4G and LTE cellular in the outside plant. The demand for better cellular and Wi-Fi coverage indoors is making indoor antenna systems (sometimes called distributed antenna systems, or DAS) another big application for fiber.

With Verizon winding down its FiOS FTTH program, contractors can focus on alternative service providers, municipalities and electric utilities. These smaller, generally independent FTTH systems are good for contractors, since many are built with the local electrical utility. And, don’t forget, Google is headed to Austin, Texas, and Provo, Utah.