What Are Fiber Optic Standards Anyway? The nitty-gritty of fiber optic standards development

Image of various types of fiber optic cables. Shutterstock / Artush

Last month I wrote about a change in fiber optic standards that seemed out of step with the technical community. That raised questions such as how do fiber optic standards get written? And what are standards anyway?

Manufacturers are behind the development of most standards to create consistent specifications for products that will work with other manufacturer’s products. In effect, standards create markets for products, because if you don’t have multiple sources that work together, your market is going to be very limited.

Think about connectors: a modular eight-pin connector used on a Cat 5 cable needs to mate with wall outlets from every manufacturer and, of course, plugs from any manufacturer on a cable have to mate with any wall outlet. The same is true for fiber optic subscriber connectors and lucent connectors. All connectors must be standardized.

Likewise, cables—copper and fiber—must be standardized so one can mate cables from different manufacturers. And people who make electronic equipment such as ethernet local area network (LAN) hardware need to know how cables will work so they can build equipment to work with them, as well as with each other.

Who develops these standards? Generally, it’s the manufacturers who want to build the products. When fiber optics was introduced 40 years ago, AT&T, Dallas, and Corning Inc., Corning, N.Y., were the big U.S. suppliers. The rest of the world was still catching up. In the United States, the Electronic Industries Alliance (EIA), Arlington, Va., invited the fiber optic companies to develop their standards under them. EIA later merged with the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) and moved all fiber optic and premises cabling standards to TIA.

AT&T and Corning, along with 3M, St. Paul, Minn., AMP Inc., Harrisburg, Pa., and dozens of other companies that made test equipment, including my own, FOTEC, began meeting several times a year to develop the standards. They developed along two lines: those for components themselves that defined the specifications of the components, and standards for testing those specifications.

That basic work took most of a decade. If I may be allowed to brag, we did a good job on those standards. The standard for measuring optical power I wrote in the late 1980s, for example, has lasted over 30 years, with its latest update in 2019. Most of these EIA/TIA standards have been adopted worldwide because the United States was the world leader in development of fiber optics.

A few other organizations developed some of their own standards, including the Insulated Cable Engineers Association, Miamitown, Ohio, which sees cables as their domain, and Bellcore (now called Telcordia Technologies Inc.), Morristown, N.J., which was spun off from AT&T at divestiture and retained ownership of some AT&T standards activities. In the United States today, most standards activities are under ANSI, the American National Standards Institute, a century-old organization in Washington, D.C.

It’s important to understand that these standards are to ensure interoperability of components, not to necessarily define proper use for them. The directions for installation of these components is left to the manufacturers who may develop their own versions of the components, as long as they meet the interoperability standards.

A few standards cover how to design networks using these components, but in fiber optics, practically the only standards for installation are NECA’s National Electrical Installation Standards group and the Fiber Optic Association (FOA), which collaborated on the ANSI/NECA/FOA-301 standard.

As fiber use spread worldwide, international standards groups became involved. To say things got more complicated is an understatement. The International Organization for Standardization, International Electrotechnic Commission and International Telecommunications Union, all Geneva-based, also are involved with fiber optic standards.

International standards activities are good for global markets, but the conflicting goals of standards developers and language barriers can cause confusion or problems. Witness the matter I discussed last month, where some group rewrote a standard to get rid of a negative number, in conflict with hundreds of years of science and engineering.

I could reference other instances where standards made little sense, but this is a magazine column, not a book! In fact, I’ll end this column now with some of my favorite quotes about standards.

“Why do we have international standards? Because those who control the standards control the marketplace.” (From a Massachusetts Port Authority brochure promoting a seminar on international standards).

And from Robert Metcalfe, co-inventor of ethernet, “The wonderful thing about standards is we have so many to choose from.”

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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