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The Fiber Workforce and Some Jobs

By Jim Hayes | Feb 22, 2024
Fiber techs installing fiber optic cabling. Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash
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What is a fiber optic technician? What kinds of work do they do? 

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What is a fiber optic technician? What kinds of work do they do? Those topics were the center of the Fiber Optic Association’s (FOA) discussions with the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) that led to the new job category of "telecommunications technician" on the BLS website. The focus of the fiber optic tech job category is primarily the installation of the fiber optic cable plant, but that is only one job done by fiber optic techs.

In my discussion with the BLS analysts, I pointed out the various stages of a fiber optic communications network project and how techs with various knowledge and skill sets are needed and involved in every step. Here is how FOA defines these stages of a project and the techs’ skills. This is not unique to FOA; it’s what has been traditional at telecom companies.

Planning and design

After a need for a communications network is established, project managers will be responsible for managing all the details of the project, while fiber techs trained and experienced in fiber optic network design will design the cable plant itself. This involves tasks as diverse as walking the route, creating the design, choosing components and converting it all to online documents.

Fiber Optics Design. Photo by Jim Hayes.

Construction

Aerial cable plants may require installing new poles or doing make-ready on existing poles and messengers. Underground construction requires trenching or boring and installation of ducts. In many cases, the actual construction is done by general construction workers, as the construction work is often not unique to fiber optics. Heavy machinery is required for much of the construction work and training is focused on safety and machine operation. Techs should be familiar with underground utility location to prevent damage to current buried utilities.

Fiber Optic Construction. Photo by Jim Hayes.

Fiber optic cable installation

Once the route is prepared, the fiber optic cable can be installed. Aerial cable installation depends on the type of cable. Regular OSP cable, figure 8 cable and ADSS cable requires special hardware and installation techniques, so the techs must understand the process appropriate for each cable. Underground cables may be pulled or blown into ducts.

Fiber optic cable installation. Photo by Jim Hayes.


Splicing

Since the beginning, fiber techs have been called splicers because that was the original job unique to fiber optics. Construction and cable installation was not very different from earlier copper cables, but splicing was very different. Even today, fiber techs are often called splicers, and splicing is a core skill for any fiber tech, whether they are joining cables or terminating them.

Fiber optic splicing. Photo by Jim Hayes.

Testing

After the fiber optic cable is installed and spliced, it must be tested. Testing goes together with splicing since every splice will be tested, often as soon as it is made, so if it needs redoing, it should be done before the splice closure is sealed. Testers must be familiar with loss budgets and the operation of equipment such as the optical loss test set and optical time domain reflectometer. Some specialized techs also do fiber characterization and testing the bandwidth capability of long-distance links or older fibers considered for upgrade.

Fiber optic testing. Photo by Jim Hayes.

Network operation

Once the cable plant is built and the communications equipment installed, it needs techs who know how to operate the communications network and connect new gear or change connections on current gear. These techs should also know how to troubleshoot systems in an outage and either do the fiber optic restoration themselves or call on techs who can.

Fiber optic network operation. Photo by Jim Hayes.

What an individual worker does differs according to their job and the scope of their employer. An independent fiber contractor may cover every job except operation, and a FTTH subscriber installation tech may only understand installing cables, testing and connecting equipment within the scope of FTTH passive optical network systems. A construction company may handle the trenching and even pole setting as well as parts of the traditional fiber work.

The FOA defined its role early on to focus on educating and certifying techs in the fiber-specific skills: cable installation, splicing, testing and restoration. FOA would like to see more schools get into the construction phase, especially for newer techniques such as microtrenching and blowing cable, but these require large outdoor areas for training and large investments in equipment. Most techs learn the construction processes through on-the-job training, and hopefully OSHA training for safety first.

Header image by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash. All other photos by Jim Hayes.

About The Author

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

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