Every year, when I do a fiber optics update, I report on new technology and applications. This year, I am taking a different approach and looking at where the jobs are in fiber optics. As president of The Fiber Optics Association (FOA), I talk to many contractors and network owners, so I get a broad picture of the industry. Here is where the activity is.
Developed countries are well-connected on fiber already but are building more links for increasing broadband coverage. For the areas of the world that are still developing communications backbones, investments are being made in fiber to connect the landings of submarine cables to all parts of the region. Municipalities are installing fiber networks to link public services, offer fiber to the home (FTTH) and lease fiber to big users.
Fiber to the home
The insatiable demand for Internet bandwidth, primarily driven by online video but also by the competition among cities to get tech companies to locate nearby, is creating high demand for FTTH and the technicians who know how to design, install and run them. As electrical utilities and independent organizations take matters into their own hands, telcos no longer dominate FTTH. The leaders are two cities where gigabit FTTH is already available: Chattanooga, Tenn., installed by the local electrical utility EPB and Kansas City (both Kansas and Missouri), where Google is doing a demonstration project.
Since practically everybody has either a smartphone and/or tablet or will get one soon, the traffic in mobile broadband is growing astronomically. Cellular towers are being connected on fiber to replace wireless or copper backhaul and the towers already on fiber needing upgrades. As the towers get more antennas to provide user bandwidth, those antennas are being connected to the base of the tower on fiber to reduce the bulk and weight of current coaxial cables. New microcells connected on fiber also are becoming available for use in urban areas.
While the term “smart grid” is becoming ubiquitous with broad (and fuzzy) meaning, one thing is certain—it will use fiber to tie together the electrical grids around the world to make them more efficient and reliable. Efficiency is obvious, but reliability is another issue made more pertinent by recent large-scale blackouts caused by grid failure. Alternative energy projects, such as wind and solar, require fiber in large quantities to monitor and control the systems and connect to the grid. Recently, the FOA arranged for one of its schools to send 10 technicians to work at the Ivanpah solar facility in California’s Mojave Desert, where they will install tens of thousands of cables. The Chattanooga gigabit FTTH project is based on a fiber to the meter system installed by the local electrical utility.
Wi-Fi has moved in and taken over enterprise networks while the fiber and copper factions were fighting each other. Cabling in large public buildings is still required for connecting local area networks (LANs), Wi-Fi and cellular antennas, security cameras and systems, and much more. For many LANs, fiber backbones and copper to the desktop work fine, with the same architecture used since the dark ages of telephones. But for larger numbers of users, especially where security is a big issue, FTTH passive optical network architecture is becoming popular (passive optical LANs), and the fiber to the office architecture I have discussed in recent columns offers a viable alternative to traditional structured cabling. Both allow you to connect your devices with the standard Category 5 patchcord but use optimized single-mode fiber to save cost and really future-proof the network.
If you are experienced at installing premises cabling, you are undoubtedly aware that data centers are sprouting up everywhere. You also are probably aware of the debate over where the data center goes next as network speeds jump from 1 to 10 to 100 gigabits per second. Will unshielded twisted-pair copper find a place here? Will multimode fiber make the grade? Or can we expect to see data centers lead the move to single-mode fiber for every network? Google is already using single-mode—installers have confirmed it. Two single-mode fibers and wavelength division multiplexing beats 20 multimode fibers in simplicity and soon, if not already, in cost. And for you electrical contractors, the issues of electrical power consumption are very important in data centers.
There are a lot of jobs in fiber optics, just sometimes not in traditional applications. Contractors pursuing these jobs need to keep up to date with technology, especially the move from multimode to single-mode fiber, and ensure their workers and equipment are up to the task.