The fiber optic industry is going through growing pains. As nationwide connectivity projects such as Google Fiber have accelerated the deployment of connected cities, the realities of running cable throughout America’s communities is proving a challenge. Some reports estimated the cost of Google Fiber averaged $1 billion per city. The project faced some obstacles related to the installation requirements. Currently, the installations consist of fiber cables underground until the last mile, after which they run along utility poles into neighborhoods and homes.
Jim Hayes, Fiber Optic Association (FOA) president and ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR contributing editor, said low-voltage installation projects such as Google Fiber (which announced it would cease adding new projects in 2016) haven’t always been planned the way traditional fiber installations were. That’s in part because the new generation of managers leading these projects brings different expertise to their work. Project managers with engineering and cable-installation backgrounds are being replaced by programmers with a software-driven agenda, Hayes said. That means contractors are challenged with providing the nuts-and-bolts understanding of installation work for these infrastructure companies.
Therefore, today’s low-voltage contractors have to come to projects with knowledgeable electricians and be prepared for some customer service. With an emphasis on bringing Wi-Fi connectivity to homes, fiber-optic installation projects are often customer-facing. Also, when running fiber for these projects, low-voltage contractors find themselves competing with telecom companies, whose crews have sometimes spent years interacting with the public. Fiber installation isn’t always about big, community-wide projects either, and regardless of whether the project is large or small, contractors today have to send out properly trained crews who understand the installation, and can act as salesmen.
Even faster than some contractors adapt to fiber cable demand, training programs are preparing the latest electricians with fiber basics. For instance, almost all IBEW Local No. 164’s JATC electricians and telecommunications technicians in Paramus, N.J., are being trained for installing, terminating and troubleshooting fiber optic cables, as well as connectors and fusion splicing, said Paul Lagana, assistant training director.
In communities and schools, the government is doing the work. Colleges, in particular, have become a hotbed of fiber optic installation activity.
The growth results from schools’ thirst for more bandwidth at faster speeds, Lagana said. In addition, there is almost no limit to applications, from distributed antenna systems (DAS) and security systems to internet-access, using a variety of hardware devices.
“[This] makes installation for these types of cabling networks a must-have for academia,” Lagana said. “Since constant advancements in optical technology keep emerging, the speed and bandwidth which was carried over the entire 12-strand [multifiber push-on] MPO is now being transmitted and received over only two strands of fibers, and this advancement will only continue.”
At the same time, the cloud takes up a large share of the work low-voltage contractors are doing in data centers.
“We find many of these applications use preterminated MPO connections,” Lagana said.
One key problem contractors face in the field is the lead times required to receive these preterminated connectors. Availability of product is the key issue for contractors, according to Noel Hernberger, Southern Nevada JATC trainer.
“The division heads and project managers are telling me about one- to three-month delays in getting raw fiber cable from producers, not just the local supplier,” he said. This may be because, since the recession, warehouses have reduced the amount of product they keep in stock, and manufacturers have trimmed their offerings to streamline the supply process.
“[However,] the lack of manufacturing output is slowing many of our projects at a time when we really need them to take off,” Hernberger said.
In addition to that, specific fiber cable lengths are often overestimated to relieve fear of short cabling issues. These excess lengths of preterminated fiber optic cables must be accounted for in these tight pathways and spaces. In some cases, out-of-box preterminated connector failures are causing “dark” or bad connections.
Contractors must ensure their electricians can work around the lead times awaiting pretermination fiber and are testing the connectors at the installation site to prevent those bad connections.
“This step may be overlooked and takes some time,” Lagana said. “However, it will absolutely avoid downtime and re-installation charges.”
Hernberger agreed that excess lengths are a challenge for electricians in the field. Pretermination involves less time doing hand terminations (most terminations involve a fusion splice) and more time engineering how to deal with the excess length of preterminated fiber.
“Ultimately, installations must be done in a clean, orderly and easy-to-troubleshoot manner even with the excess fiber length,” he said.
DAS upgrades for cellular telephone providers offer a similar dilemma.
“The installation and testing parameters are much more stringent than when I entered the market 15 years ago,” Hernberger said.
At the same time, installation deadlines are sometimes compressed, especially in deployments such as retail, where it’s vital to keep stores open and the construction out of sight for shoppers.
“Working around the neverending remodel that is a typical Las Vegas shopping destination makes for difficult fiber optic installs and issues with meeting the installation standards,” he said.
Las Vegas contractors have numerous fiber optic installations for road projects related to the I-15 Los Angeles to Las Vegas and Las Vegas to Salt Lake City segments as well as the I-11 to Phoenix projects that involve fiber optics for safety monitoring and information displays. These installations are typically basic, direct-burial fiber optics. The distances, protecting existing services and mitigating the disruption of service are important considerations when revamping the layout of interchanges and crossovers.
Other projects involve large data centers, such as Switch (www.switch.com) centers. Las Vegas schools are in the midst of $150 million worth of construction to build out new schools and alleviate overcrowding. For these projects, electrical contractors typically provide a uniform design and installation solution. ECs without low-voltage experience typically subcontract out the termination and testing for one or two projects before they inevitably decide to make the investment in training and equipment, Hernberger said.
The local JATC offers an FOA fiber optic class about once per quarter.
“Most of the workers in our jurisdiction have been through it, as well as meeting with technical representatives from equipment and testing companies,” Hernberger said.
Many project managers and some instructors have advanced training and certifications from the FOA, Corning and BICSI.
Jack Ryan, Baltimore instructor, has been teaching electricians fiber optics at the Electrical Training ALLIANCE for years. He’s seen the transition from coaxial cable to Cat 5e to fiber for security systems at Fort Meade, Md., as well as public places such as the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) light rail.
“We train electricians for everything,” Ryan said. “More and more fiber has been a natural progression.”
Power other ethernet, wireless voltage for transmitters and the Internet of Things are the next steps in the evolution of low-voltage systems, Ryan said. In Baltimore, fiber installers are finding work in government projects such as the National Security Agency, healthcare and commercial buildings.
In the meantime, other obstacles may change the kinds of projects ECs face.
“The current generation of entrepreneurs are not technology people. They consider technology as a facilitator to their business ideas,” Ryan said. “You can see that mentality [in a variety of projects]. The expectation is that some projects will fail.”
For instance, a company such as Google can afford to support the more successful project that proves to be feasible. Google Fiber is underway in 34 cities, however, future projects have been frozen and current projects are taking longer than initially projected. In some cases, contractors from outside the region come into a project only to learn that the plans for laying cable weren’t going to work.
“The lesson is, if you’re going to do a project, know what you’re doing first,” Hayes said.
A contractor with wisdom is the one who will succeed. And wisdom, according to Hayes, is a combination of knowledge tempered by experience with “a big dose of judgement.”