2022 Fiber Optic Update: Commitment, workforce needed to make broadband universally available

Shutterstock / Matthias Pahl
Shutterstock / Matthias Pahl
Published On
Jan 14, 2022

In 2020, we learned that internet and broadband connectivity were necessities, not luxuries. In 2021, we learned we’re not prepared to make it universally available. The problem is not technology; old technology and new developments make building the physical network easier and cheaper than ever.

The missing pieces are twofold: a genuine commitment to provide broadband, and a workforce to build it. Of course, the “commitment” part necessitates providing an adequate budget, but politics and competitive pressures are making that difficult.

Incumbent service providers don’t seem to have that commitment. When it comes to underserved or unserved areas, primarily low-income urban and rural areas, the fact that these locations are not as profitable has been the issue for companies dependent on Wall Street. AT&T CEO John Stankey told analysts last year that his company saw no way that rural broadband was feasible.

But local government agencies and rural co-ops are moving right ahead. They understand long-term investment and are committed to providing services to their constituents. We now see commitment at the local level rising to the state level where the incumbents have not provided up-to-date services, including Kentucky, Ohio, Vermont and even California, where one would think that high-tech would take care of its own.

In “Make the Broadband Connection,” (ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR November 2021), I wrote how the history of rural electrification has great relevance to the current broadband problem. Rural networks require different solutions than urban ones, but the problems solved in the 1930s for electrification apply equally well to broadband today. Rural electrical co-ops have become a major factor in solving the problem of rural broadband as they did with electrification back then.

New technologies and techniques are also helping, reducing component and installation costs. In the underground cable plant, microcables and microducts or fabric ducts can make room in current conduits for more cables. High-fiber-count cables are being used in dense urban areas where they allow much higher fiber density in smaller ducts.

Aerial cable plants can also benefit from smaller cables, allowing overlashing on current cables without overloading messenger wires. In some areas, all-dielectric self-supporting cables can be installed on power transmission towers and poles, or special cables can even be installed by simply wrapping them around power cables.

Fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) networks are now being built with prefabricated components, reducing the time and cost involved in splicing every cable joint, and allowing the use of installers with lower skill levels. Special drop cables are being used to connect homes with much lower construction costs.

Network equipment technology is also helping lower costs. The high volumes of FTTH passive optical network (PON) equipment has dropped costs tremendously. Advances in PON equipment, such as remote optical line terminals aimed at rural networks with smaller subscriber bases, make rural networks more cost-effective. In urban areas, 10G PON equipment is now being used to serve higher subscriber numbers at lower costs, and 100G PONs prototypes serving as many as 512 users are being tested.

The wild claims for 5G wireless have calmed down, while more cellular sites are being installed and more mobile devices are being used. However, 5G performance is proving so far to be only marginally better than 4G/LTE. A bigger problem is the obsolescence of 3G systems by cellular carriers, which is putting many fixed devices such as security systems and monitoring devices out of service. Upgrading these systems has been problematic in 2021 due to the worldwide shortages of semiconductor chips for new devices.

Then there is the “ramp-up” problem. Building new fiber optic networks for broadband, FTTH and 5G wireless requires more components and workers. Building more components also requires more workers. Lead times for components are getting much longer, delaying projects. The pandemic-fueled supply line problems are affecting everybody.

There is also a major shortage of qualified, certified workers to build these fiber optic networks. At the Fiber Optic Association, we are adding new schools every month, often in cooperation with states such as those mentioned above or companies looking to expand their workforce. Training new recruits or upgrading current employees in today’s world almost always involves online training, so the association’s Fiber U online learning website has been very busy. We have even added the first Fiber U online course in Spanish.

Each year as I write this column, I try to avoid making forecasts; they are almost never correct and look silly in hindsight. But I won’t surprise you when I say “Fasten your seat belts, we’re in for another unpredictable year in 2022.”

Like I say every year, it’s always good to invest in training.

About the Author

Jim Hayes

Fiber Optics Columnist and Contributing Editor

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

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