Last month, I discussed the issues of industry standards for fiber optic and copper cabling. Manufacturers write standards so they can build products that are compatible with products from other manufacturers, since multiple sources are mandatory in today’s marketplace. But who writes standards for contractors, installers and users to follow?
In the late 1990s, we at The Fiber Optics Association (FOA) worked with the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) to create a National Electrical Installation Standard (NEIS) for installing fiber optic cabling. NECA saw this new standard as an obvious expansion of its NEIS, since the majority of electrical contractors are installing low-voltage cabling, including fiber optics.
NECA/FOA-301 may have been the first public standard for fiber optics installation, but it was hardly written in a vacuum. It drew from dozens of then-current standards that defined what a fiber optic network looked like and how it should perform. The new ground NECA/FOA-301 covered was in defining what “installation in a neat and workmanlike manner” meant.
We initiated discussions regarding the applicability of some of the new industry standards to legacy systems or to systems installed for applications other than the state-of-the-art high bit rate ones.
After those discussions, several people suggested that the FOA should consider writing its own standards. Some of the people making this suggestion, in fact, represented manufacturers who participated in writing of some of the controversial standards.
Because most of the technical questions we field are about testing, we figured it was the topic on which we should focus. It also helped that the FOA has tremendous depth of knowledge on this subject, with many of us (myself included) having worked in the fiber optic test equipment business.
We started by analyzing what a fiber optic testing standard should include and came up with six questions that cover practically every type of test and could be used as an outline for all testing standards:
- What needs to be tested?
- What equipment is required to perform the tests?
- What are the basic procedures for making the test?
- What are the options required to implement the tests under various conditions?
- What are the sources of error in the measurements?
- What documentation is required for the tests?
Pretty logical, aren’t they? Well, maybe not to everyone because it was hard to find any standards that clearly answered these basic questions. Question four is a good example. Standards for testing fiber optic cables and cable plants offer three options for setting a “0 dB” loss reference, using one, two or three reference cables. But nowhere does it clearly state where each method is appropriate. Neither does it explain the increased errors expected with more than one reference cable (question five) or the fact that the measured loss will be different.
We decided to implement another change in our standards. Since most of us are visually oriented, we decided to use as many diagrams as possible to explain the procedures in the standards. Not only did the graphic format make our standards easier to comprehend, it made them much shorter, allowing us to create a one-page summary of each standard.
If the FOA has a one-page standard and others are dozens of pages, what did we leave out? Not much actually; we may even include more information because we link to additional web pages that provide the details, much like current standards with appendices of additional materials. This method allowed us to illustrate and separate the needs for different types of networks into additional reference documents. And since we were concerned that legacy networks were being ignored, we provide options that cover all types of cable plants, allowing users to choose the appropriate one.
One other factor distinguishes the FOA’s standards from most others. Our standards are available online for free. The issue of availability and cost of standards is currently widely discussed, and some standards groups say they must charge for their standards due to the long, expensive process of developing and distributing them.
The FOA chose a 21st-century approach to develop and distribute our standards, drafting them and posting them on the web for review and comment by our master instructors and other volunteers. We incurred practically no cost in developing these standards, and several rounds of review took only a few weeks. Another advantage of the FOA method is we can quickly and easily update our standards to cover new technological developments, making them more relevant to new technology, while not dismissing current and past technology.
Take a look at the FOA standards on www.thefoa.org. Download a copy for your laptop, tablet or smartphone (yes, the standards are formatted for mobile devices, too).
HAYES is a VDV writer and educator and the president of The Fiber Optic Association. Find him at www.JimHayes.com.