Well, we’ve heard it all before—fiber to the desktop (FTTD) is on its way to becoming the power source of choice. While unshielded twisted pair (UTP) cabling has been dominant, there is reason to think fiber will be a true competitor soon. FTTD may still seem like a distant goal, but as technology changes and Category 5 cabling is replaced by Category 6, then Category 7, lots of experts say it’s time to prepare for big changes.

Fiber suppliers have boasted for years that they had the most economic and effective cable to the desktop but, at the same time, UTP wiring kept getting better at doing the very job FTTD was intended to do. That trend may soon shift. One reason is the eminent release of “Category 7” cabling.

According to Frank Murawski, president of FTM Consulting, Hummelstown, Pa., between 2006 and 2011 fiber use will have increased enough to cut severely into the UTP cable market. FTM specializes in the market analysis of the structured cabling system market. In mid-2001, Murawski completed a market analysis of the high-performance structured cabling market. This includes Category 5, Category 5e and Category 6 shipment forecasts for cables and apparatus devices over the next five years. His organization also analyzed future Category 7 cabling.

Murawski predicted a Category 7 standard will be released in 2004, making Category 7’s presence in the cabling market a likely reality in the first part of 2005. Few companies will want to upgrade their entire cabling system from UTP to fiber, so FTM has estimated the impact on UTP cabling will be 2 percent in 2005 and 4 percent by 2006.

At the same time, Murawski projected that larger enterprises will implement FTTD after the introductory period, substantially impacting UTP cabling in the 2006 to 2011 time frame. “This will be the first significant event to slow down UTP cabling use inside buildings,” he said. At first, 10 Gbps applications will be limited to the use for high-resolution, graphical displays for engineering, healthcare or document creation needs.

With network requirements changing constantly, contractors need to be masters in a cabling system that can keep up with demands for broader bandwidths and greater speed. This will include 10 Gbps Ethernet support for applications at the desktop. The first application is anticipated for aggregating 1 Gbps horizontal floor traffic onto a 10 Gbps fiber riser cabling subsystem. Like the other new higher bandwidth advances, 10 Gbps will not stop at the riser cabling subsystem, but will extend to the horizontal cabling subsystem.

If 10 Gbps becomes a reality at the desktop, such as 40 Gbps, then higher speeds will be needed to aggregate these desktop speeds over a high-speed backbone.

Fiber has the largest bandwidth of any media available. It can transmit signals over the longest distance at the lowest cost, with the fewest repeaters and the least maintenance. So far, fiber cabling is the only cable media able to support 10 Gbps transmission speed over 100 meters or more. UTP cabling cannot go much above supporting 1 Gbps over a 100-meter distance.

“The use of fiber cabling in the horizontal cabling system is a natural evolution of expanding fiber’s current use in the riser to its use in the horizontal,” Murawski said. “An extension of the current centralized fiber architecture can be expanded to include FTTD.”

While copper requires a server to run cables to a telecommunications closet then on to the aggregate desktops, the only thing that fiber needs is a media converter. The ease of extending fiber onto the desktop without the closet is a selling point for many companies.

According to Jim Hayes, founder of FOTEC and Cable U, when people compare the cost factor between copper and fiber, they often forget to include the high costs of running the copper cables to the telecommunications closet. “The telecom closet is the wild card,” Hayes said. Those hubs require conditioned uninterrupted power.

With fiber, you can run the backbone cables, distribute them to the individual desktops and the power is centralized in the computer room, which makes it easier to manage. The more efficient way to install fiber is to connect the user directly from the desktop to the centralized network electronics.

Any forward-thinking customer wants the ability to upgrade. As speed increases, fiber becomes more and more lucrative. For example, at one gigabit, Ethernet can run less expensively on fiber. Conversely, at 10 megabits, fiber can be 10 times more expensive than copper. At 100 megabits, that differential changes to five times more expensive for fiber.

FTTD isn’t going to arrive like a revolution in the next year. But by the end of the decade, we can expect more and more companies to find fiber to be their most efficient, least expensive and most upgradable option to the desktop. EC

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer, based in Somerset, N.J. She can be reached at claireswed@aol.com.