I closed the January year-in-review column with, “Like I say every year, it’s always good to invest in training.” High-tech fields such as fiber optics are always changing, and you have to keep up with technology or risk falling behind.
Fortunately, there are many ways to keep up with new tech. Personally, I read magazines and email newsletters relevant to our field. Of course, it means my inbox is filled every morning and it takes considerable time just to figure out what to read now and what to file away for reading later.
Since I edit the Fiber Optic Association’s (FOA) monthly newsletter and write this column for ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR, I also seek out interesting news and new products that I think will interest readers, looking especially for items that affect fiber optic technologists’ jobs directly. These get used as topics for articles and also have a bigger potential role.
Another part of my role at FOA is working with our international technical advisory group to set standards for training and certification. After standards are set, becoming part of our “KSAs”—the knowledge, skills and abilities expected of a certified fiber optic technician—we then begin incorporating them into the FOA’s recommended training curriculum for our approved schools.
Changing the KSAs and curriculum is not a trivial task. The technical advisors must all agree the change is justified, and they are not an easy group to convince. All have been in the field for several decades or more now, and they are all still actively involved in some aspect of the industry—developing and manufacturing products, installing fiber optic cable plants and networks or teaching techs how to build fiber optic networks. Their continual involvement in various aspects of the fiber optic industry means they are all exposed to new technologies and changes in processes important to the fiber optic tech’s work.
When someone proposes a change, it initiates a discussion that typically lasts for months. Sometimes, it also means we will get our hands on new products and try them ourselves, as was the case with the new fusion splice-on connectors (SOCs). It can also involve visiting manufacturers or attending training courses, as we did during the early days of high-fiber-count cables. Some of our instructors also took products into the field to get real on-the-job training and experience, such as installing microcables by blowing cables and installing optical power ground wire—the high-voltage electrical cable with fiber in the middle—on remote towers.
The topics that have made it into the FOA recommended training curriculum are highly important to the successful fiber optic tech. Recently, topics included the “three micros” (microcables, microducts and microtrenching) and the related installation method of blowing cables, as well as big changes in termination practices based on SOCs and the automation of fiber optic testing with OLTs (optical loss test sets) and OTDRs (optical time domain reflectometers).
The earth-shaking change that’s coming is the dropping of traditional adhesive/polish connectors from hands-on labs in the curriculum. Some techs have been saying for years that “nobody polishes connectors anymore,” and they are mostly correct for field installations. SOCs installed with fusion splicing or mechanical splicing are now the field termination method of choice. Of course, adhesive/polish termination is not dead; it’s used by every factory making patchcords and prefab cable assemblies, but its relevance for the field tech has faded.
Another big change is the acceptance of automation in fiber optic testing. Early attempts to make smart fiber optic instruments was not always successful. A knowledgeable tech was much better than many of those instruments, but today’s instruments built on artificial intelligence are proving themselves in the field. That means training can focus on how the test should be set up and how to interpret the test results rather than how to operate a complicated instrument.
All this comes from our continual process of monitoring the industry and talking to people in the field to determine what’s changing. It does take a lot of time, but it’s something everyone needs to do to keep up in a fast-moving field such as fiber optics.
But look at it this way, at least you are not in the internet software business—that’s insane!