Since the fiber optic “bubble” burst a couple of years ago, employment ads for fiber optic installers have been scarce. But are real jobs still available? If so, where are they? Is the outside plant market dead? What about premises applications? What technologies are driving new installations?

In my new full-time role as president of the Fiber Optic Association Inc., the professional society of fiber optics that certifies many fiber optic installers, I find myself continually fielding questions on the job market. FOA-approved schools are graduating lots of new CFOTs (Certified Fiber Optic Technicians) who are joining the job market. Both they and their schools ask us for our views on where the jobs are, so we try to scout out the current activity and help them. Here’s our current opinion on the market for fiber optic installation jobs.

The jobs are certainly not in the “long haul” market. Reports of cables having 95 percent or more dark fiber were true in many markets. The rush to fiber for long-distance telephony and the Internet created an oversupply of bandwidth that will take years to use up in high-traffic markets. Only certain areas—such as secondary markets that were ignored in the “fiber rush”—are getting new cables now and fiber counts in cables are much lower, meaning less installation time.

Metropolitan markets are doing better. Big cities are mostly overbuilt, but smaller cities are now getting the attention. Some are experiencing good telecomm and Internet traffic growth and require more capacity, creating a market for outside plant installers. Like the long-haul market, cables typically have lower fiber counts, in spite of the fact that singlemode fiber costs only about 2 cents per meter—less than kite string or monofilament fishing line. Fiber may be cheap, but users know the installation is expensive, so they reduce their costs by installing only the fiber they know they need.

The big news is in fiber to the home. It is called FTTH, FTTP (premises) or FTTx, depending on who is pushing their technology. But the three biggest phone companies have banded together to create a standard technology for FTTH based on PON (passive optical network—another beloved high-tech acronym.) The PON architecture cuts the cost of the expensive optoelectronics by sharing one expensive laser among up to 32 users, but does not reduce installation time very much. Supposedly, the PON network, when combined with the large drop in optical component prices in the fiber market downturn, will finally make FTTH cost effective.

Just don’t hold your breath. There are several obstacles in the way of massive FTTH installations. Talk of 5 million FTTH connections per year by these phone companies have component suppliers worried. Following all the layoffs and downsizing of the last few years, as well as moving most production to growing markets like China, companies are wary of being able to supply sufficient components for so many installations and unable or unwilling to invest in developing capacity to do so.

Most people I have talked with wonder if this is a real program. The telcos have talked about FTTH for 15 years or more but only do a few dozen houses at a time. Some people also think it is just a ploy by the telcos to put pressure on suppliers to lower prices or a diversion to test the market among consumers.

The consumers are the wild card. Will they subscribe to services that will make FTTH profitable for the telcos? Will the telcos use FTTH to try to catch up with the CATV industry, which has a 2-to-1 lead over DSL with their broadband cable modem service? And will consumers continue their abandonment of landlines for wireless services making investment in FTTH or any form of telco cabling questionable?

In the midst of all this uncertainty, there is lots of good news for contractors and installers. Both the premises cabling and security markets are booming. Multimode installations for LANs and security systems are benefiting from current market conditions.

The disappointing acceptance rate of Category 6 in the structured cabling marketplace is helping fiber. Category 6 is not needed for networks up to 1 gigabit speeds and unusable for higher speeds. Talk of a 625 MHz copper cable necessary for 10 gigabit Ethernet effectively killed any reason to install Category 6 for the future. Now fiber is not only preferable for high-speed LANs, but the really fast laser-rated 50/125 fiber is cheaper than the traditional 62.5/125 fiber.

Today’s security concerns have also helped fiber optics. It is being more widely used for video surveillance cameras and alarms. The military and government agencies are budgeting billions of dollars for installing new fiber networks in many facilities with geographically diverse cable runs to prevent terrorist attacks from disrupting communications. Upgrades to links between facilities are also in the works.

It seems that the market potential for the contractor doing premises and campus fiber optics is really great, while the opportunity in FTTH is a long shot that could pay off big. EC

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