Way back In 2019, everybody was raving about the prospects for new technologies such as smart cities, 5G wireless, autonomous vehicles, internet of things (IoT) and numerous other applications that would disrupt the status quo and change the world. Of course, all these applications would require plenty of fiber optics, which makes the introduction of new products such as high-fiber-count cables seem what was needed at the time.
But later in the year, it seemed that disruption was being disrupted. Companies such as Uber, Lyft and WeWork had either gone public or made an attempt and were pummeled by analysts that claimed the companies’ business models were not sustainable. Technical experts began exposing the flawed assumptions behind many of these new technologies.
Using IoT assumed somebody was going to provide the infrastructure. Its target, smart cities, was going to be loaded with costs to support new technologies requiring large expenditures to implement and maintain, given the rapid obsolescence of technology. This would be hard to justify when most cities today cannot even keep up with the costs of roadway maintenance. Plus, cities would be giving away valuable data that could also violate citizens’ privacy.
Autonomous vehicles were just around the corner, so to speak. But last year, several major car companies and their artificial intelligence (AI) tech partners admitted that they were decades away. One manufacturer said that AI could probably do 80% of the job, but dealing with humans driving, riding bikes or jaywalking was beyond their capability in the foreseeable future. One of the biggest proponents of AI saw its vehicles continuing to hit stationary objects on the road.
5G wireless has been the biggest subject of promises for the future. It would make cellphones faster and more reliable, provide the bandwidth needed for IoT and negate the need for fiber to the home (FTTH). But 5G signals in the millimeter wavelengths where the bandwidth is highest have problems with distance, weather and penetrating walls and windows in buildings.
Then there is the cost of 5G. Estimates of the cost of 5G infrastructure, including massive installations of fiber optics to the small-cell sites in cities, range from $200 billion to $300 billion. That’s much more than it would cost to connect every house in America with fiber optics. 5G phones were expected to be more than $1,000, a price point that is already getting customer resistance for current high-end phones.
However, FTTH is still going strong, but the builders are city governments, utilities, especially city-owned and co-ops and private companies. The real estate development business knows that FTTH is something that customers want and will pay extra for.
Independent cell tower developers and service providers are building more sites in cities using current 4G/LTE technology, which will eventually be converted to some form of 5G. These sites require lots of fiber. Look around any city, and I bet you will find contractors installing fiber for small cells. Distributed antenna systems are being installed in more buildings to ensure customers can use cellular devices indoors. Many local laws now require wireless indoors for first responders, which makes the system more important.
New fiber optic technology saves installation time and cost, and it is becoming widely used. Fiber optic cables are getting smaller and contain more fibers at the same time. Installation is getting easier, and one way is by switching to fusion splice-on connectors.
Microtrenching, microducts and microcables are simplifying installations. While the benefits in a city are easy to understand, it has been proven equally advantageous in rural areas. One contractor told me he used microtrenching instead of conventional trenching down a rural road in Canada where it proved to be faster and cheaper.
At the other end of the size scale, high-fiber-count cables up to 6,912 fibers are becoming available. Some telephone companies are using them in dense metropolitan areas for FTTH and small cells, and they are perfect for connecting buildings in hyperscale data centers. However, installing these require some specialized training from the manufacturer.