An update on the status of fiber optics:

This should be a good year for optical fiber; on the private network front, we have new applications and components that are enhancing the acceptance of fiber in everyday applications. In public networks, fiber to the home (FTTH) has become a major goal of thousands of communities, and its acceptance should promote the use of fiber everywhere.

The faster 10 gigabit Ethernet for LAN backbones and storage area networks (SANs) using optical fiber has been available for two years now, while hardware for the copper version may not be readily available for another year. This three-year lead on copper certainly works to fiber’s advantage, as anyone needing the capability of 10 gig Ethernet today will use fiber. Even when it becomes available, 10 gig over UTP cabling will require a new generation of Category 6, called Cat 6A or augmented Cat 6, to take full advantage of the standard.

The old adage that fiber is expensive, hard to install and fragile certainly dies hard, but the difficulty contractors report in certifying Cat 6 installations, further complicated by the need to test for “alien crosstalk,” a new problem that cropped up with Cat 6A, makes installing fiber seem pretty simple. And we won’t even discuss the cost of the new Cat 6A testers nor the time it takes to complete a link test.

On the component side, the lasers used for transmitters on gigabit fiber networks called VCSELs are becoming commodities. They are so cheap that manufacturers are dropping LEDs in favor of VCSELs and even using them in inexpensive consumer products like the optical mouse. Meanwhile, 10 gig copper transceivers are power hogs that are stressing the circuit packages and printed circuit boards. Power consumption is directly related to reliability and system cost.

Other fiber optic components have entered a new generation, too. Optical fiber has transitioned over to 50/125 laser-optimized fiber for most new installations. The 62.5/125 fiber is being retired after 20 years of yeoman duty, during which time copper cabling for data went through about 10 generations. We expect 50/125 to have a similar lifetime, while copper cabling will continue to offer upgrades every couple of years.

Another workhorse component, the ST connector, is fading, too. Even the SC is declining, as distributors report the miniature LC connector is becoming the most widely used. This transition was initially driven by the transceiver and equipment manufacturers, because the LC allowed more compact, reasonably sized equipment. But the LC is an easy transition for installers, as it terminates just like the ST or SC, only many say it is easier to polish with its small ferrule.

A number of new applications—many security-related such as CCTV—are using fiber optics, while corporate backbones and SANs are rapidly becoming all fiber. But the application with the biggest effect on the fiber optic market is fiber to the home. While the number of communities doing FTTH is impressive—about 1,000—the magnitude of Verizon’s FTTH commitment is making the biggest impact.

The Fiber Optic Association began working with Verizon last year to help it recruit FTTH installers. Verizon needed hundreds of installers on both coasts as it rolled out its FiOS FTTH service in both new subdivisions and older communities. In the new communities, FTTH was hardly more expensive than copper but allowed Verizon to offer FiOS TV, digital TV to compete with cable, allowing it to sign up as many as 70 percent of all the homes past. In older communities, Verizon had to overbuild older copper networks, but besides gaining revenue for capturing customers for Internet access and TV, it reduced its maintenance costs considerably, perhaps enough to justify the overbuild with FTTH itself.

But the impact of Verizon FiOS and other FTTH projects is greater than just offering new services to consumers, it’s the enhancement of the public perception of optical fiber. Remember the Sprint “pin drop” ads of 20 years ago? Sprint promoted its new fiber optic long-distance services by saying that optical fiber made them so quiet you could hear a pin drop—a major advance over copper and microwave networks then in use. Sprint’s ads were the introduction of fiber optic technology to most of the general public and created a very positive image for fiber.

Now Verizon is promoting FiOS to the public in ads, online (www22.verizon.com/about/careers/fiberjobs.html, where you can see videos and investigate job opportunities, too) and even kiosks in shopping centers. FiOS is being touted as the future of communications and more importantly, cheaper than copper for new construction.

The promotion of FTTH should help premises fiber applications too. The boss, who is supposed to sign off on installing a new generation of copper cabling, who has been seeing FiOS ads about how fiber is better—and cheaper—than copper, may not agree without his IT department doing a more complete analysis of the fiber-copper issue. And that can only benefit fiber!     EC

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