Facing a major shortage of competent fiber techs already, and with the federal government offering grants of billions of dollars to build broadband networks, it’s time for contractors to consider productivity. Getting more work done with current staff levels is not going to solve the long-term problem of a tech shortage, but it can buy some time.
Increasing productivity requires considering the entire process of a fiber optic project, starting at the design phase. There have been changes in the 40-plus years of fiber optics, but many networks I see don’t look much different now than they did then.
Fiber optic cable plant construction has really changed. It’s not just a matter of digging a trench, dropping in some conduit and pulling cable or lashing new fiber to legacy copper cables. If the construction is underground, carefully considering the cable plant’s route might help find unused ducts for use with new cables. New products allow removing some old ducts and replacing them with fabric ones that can carry several new cables in the conduit without construction.
Microtrenching or directional boring can speed up underground construction compared to trenching. If you are not familiar with these techniques, renting equipment with experienced operators or subcontracting the work is often preferable to learning, especially on the first job.
Another issue is locating other underground services. Nothing slows down the job and adds to the cost more than damaging something already there. It happens way too often. Two contractors broke gas lines within a mile of my office in the last year. Thankfully, quick thinking by the local fire department kept them from becoming tragedies. Be sure to “call (or click) before you dig” to find out what’s on the route, and have a tech with underground locating equipment monitor the path before digging or boring.
The owner of the cable plant route should require the contractor to follow the federal “dig once” policy. If trenching, microtrenching or boring, install extra ducts for future networks. Microducts are tiny—a bundle of six is about the same size as a traditional fiber duct, fits easily in a single microtrench or bore and can provide for future expansion.
There is still plenty of aerial cable in use, and contractors are installing new fiber optic cables, many for 5G. There is now the “one step make-ready” process where the installing contractor is allowed to move cables already installed and overlash to current cables on a messenger, which can make adding cables much faster and cheaper. For this process, ensure the installing techs know what they are doing, because mistakes here can damage others’ cables and be very expensive to fix.
Fibers and cables
In the design, new component developments can also help productivity. Microcables contain more fibers in smaller cables, making them easier to install. The bigger versions of microcables, high-fiber-count cables, can also save time and money, but cables of 864 or 1,728 fibers are limited in use. The 864-fiber cables work for underground or aerial installation. Bigger cables are mainly for short urban use underground and require very large vaults for storing service loops.
High-fiber-count cables present another challenge: splicing. The time required to splice these cables is substantial, and ribbon splicing is essential. Most of these cables are ribbon cables anyway, so investing in a ribbon splicing machine will be necessary. Ribbon splicing saves a lot of time. Splicing 12 fibers at once only takes about twice as long as splicing a single fiber, so it’s about 6 times faster. Even regular loose tube cables can benefit from ribbon splicing, as splicer manufacturers offer fixtures to splice all 12 fibers in a regular buffer tube at once.
Testing many fibers is another challenge. There are no “mass” fiber testers like ribbon splicers, but test equipment companies have used advanced software techniques to speed up testing without compromising the test quality. These advanced testers do multiple tests such as insertion loss and OTDR testing in seconds and store the data for reports needed for cable plant documentation.
In addition to investing in some new equipment, there is a big payback for investing in tech training. When you want to use a new component or buy equipment, the manufacturer will usually provide training for techs. Take advantage of it. And online learning sites work well with OJT programs when you can’t spare the time for formal classroom training.