Why Isn't Fiber More Popular?

My first thought in writing this column was that the title was wrong.It should be “Why Do People Still Install Copper?” In the fiber optic business, we’ve suffered from the copper industry’s harping that fiber is fragile because it’s made of glass, hard to install and too expensive. They say install this year’s hot copper product and “future-proof” your network—until the next-generation product comes out and you’ll need to replace your “future-proofed” cabling with it.

In actuality, it seems copper cabling has the problems, but perhaps copper proponents, like politicians, believe that attacking your opponent loudly enough will help hide your own issues. Consider this:

Category 6 appears to be headed toward being both a marketing and technical failure. More than a year after its standardization (and another couple of years of sales of “pre-standard” products), it represents only 15 to 20 percent of the market, compared to about 70 percent for Category 5e. If it is as great as its marketers say, why has it not taken off? It’s not just the soft economy.

No network electronic hardware requires Category 6. Gigabit Ethernet runs on Category 5e and many manufacturers claim their latest products run just fine on Category 5. The one network designed to promote Category 6 use, 1000Base-TX, is a standard that no one seems to care about, since no product appears to have been manufactured to that standard. At the current time, 10 Gigabit Ethernet runs only on fiber and the project to develop a copper standard requires a lot more than Category 6 performance. Only those using Category 6 for video have valid use for its bandwidth.

Manufacturing and installing Category 6 must be a nightmare. At the NECA VDV Expo this year, two contractors in my advanced cabling class told me that 40 to 50 percent of their Category 6 links failed certification testing. I recently heard the same thing from a network manager at a major user. Two major companies in the Category 6 market tested manufactured patchcords and found five out of six they tested failed. Category 5e was not much better, however, since two out of three of the Category 5e patchcords they tested failed.

Add counterfeiting to copper’s problems. Unlike fiber optics, it is relatively easy to manufacture copper wire to look like Category 5e or Category 6, but with cheap materials and poor workmanship. At a recent Building Industry Consulting Service International (BISCI) meeting, the chairman of the TIA cabling standards committee warned that counterfeit products from the Far East had begun appearing in the U.S. market. How do you know the brand-name product you bought is genuine?

The final nail in the coffin of copper may be a new provision of the NEC. Article 800.52B of the 2002 NEC requires the removal of abandoned cables as fire hazards. Landlords are becoming the enforcers of this, requiring those installing cables or vacating locations to remove abandoned cables. We have all seen offices where layers and layers of cables are left above ceilings or below floors, archaeological reminders of the numerous generations of copper cabling installed over the years. When installing a new generation of copper cabling requires removing old cables at immense cost—removing cables is much more expensive than installing them—upgrading your copper cabling every year or two becomes highly unattractive financially.

But this article is about fiber optics, and fiber has had its share of problems too, mostly irrelevant to premises cabling. The bad news about the tanking of the long-distance fiber market has rubbed off on the premises market. Some of the small form factor connectors introduced with great fanfare a few years ago have not proven out in the field. There is confusion about a new generation of multimode fiber that is incompatible with earlier designs.

However, premises fiber optic cabling is on a roll. Prices are declining due to the oversupply of all components. Electronics are getting less expensive. New multimode fiber offers 10 times the bandwidth of earlier designs. Users are discovering the advantages of centralized fiber architecture and zone cabling.

I’ve heard that the premises fiber market has grown 50 to 100 percent in the last two years. Many government and military users are upgrading systems, not so much for performance, but for geographic diversity. Installing duplicate systems that are separated along the runs provides greater security in the event of a terrorist attack.

You cannot “future-proof” any cabling network. When technology is concerned, no crystal ball is really useful. But careful choice of fiber optic components and cabling architecture can buy you a lot more time than with copper. The standard multimode fiber that today supports Gigabit Ethernet for 300 meters has been the No. 1 fiber installed for more than 15 years. The single-mode fiber you install today is basically the same as that has been used for 20 years. Over that time, network speeds have gone from 10 to 10,000 megabits per second.

In that same time period, you would have installed two generations of coax and four generations of UTP copper cabling. Case closed. EC

HAYES is a VDV writer and trainer and the president of The Fiber Optic Association. Find him at www.JimHayes.com.


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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