Cool Tools: Fiber Tools

Consumer demand for greater access to broadband and the latest wireless devices are key drivers of telecommunications growth, according to Insight Research in a study published earlier this year.

According to the 2013 Telecommunications Industry Review, “A large percentage of business activity now depends on the Internet for everything from electronic commerce to intranet applications to customer service. Increasing use of video and wireless services is driving exponential bandwidth demands onto these enterprise networks. As more endpoints and applications are added to these networks, the combined traffic will drive ‘an order of magnitude increase’ on to enterprise networks.”

One implication of these findings is that more fiber optic cable will be deployed in more areas for the new networks needed to serve more high-speed datacom networks in a growing number of structures.

Fiber optic cabling no longer is limited to telecom and data systems. There is a trend for newer video surveillance and alarm systems to use fiber optic cabling instead of copper.

Businesses of all sizes, defense installations, other government agencies, and institutional users want fiber-based, high-speed fiber networks. Additionally, fiber is coming to many more residential structures, spurred on by homeowners’ desires.

A study published by the FTTH Council says that fiber to the home (FTTH) networks, which are capable of providing broadband speeds of 1 gigabit and beyond, now are available to more than one-fifth of North American households. The report estimates annual direct investment in FTTH networks will reach $4.7 billion by 2017 and increase to $18 billion over the next five years.

Rodger Burke, business development manager for fiber systems at Panduit, said that it seems today that every datacom project in commercial buildings has some sort of fiber.

“The number of strands is growing due to the increased use of higher bandwidths and increased reach capabilities of 10-gig multimode applications,” he said. “Growth of data centers is driving heavy plug-and-play fiber deployments.”

Data centers have seen a huge growth of fiber used for storage area network (SAN) applications.

“The use of virtual machine [VM] software has exploded the deployment of SAN networks and has drastically increased the number of connections used for storage,” Burke said. “Top-of-rack switch deployments have reduced the trunk cables from 48 copper down to 12 fiber ports—six primary, six secondary—in many topologies.”

Only trained technicians correctly using tools developed specifically for connecting optic fiber may install fiber cabling. Basic fiber connection methods include adhesive, mechanical, prepolished and pigtail. Fusion splicing connects two optical fibers together. Specialty tools for fiber are available to perform these tasks (see box, page 103).

“Because networks are getting faster and the room for error smaller and smaller, completing the terminations with the lowest loss is essential to the overall budget,” Burke said. “Preterminated MTP/MPO solutions also have escalated the required tools in the field to clean, inspect and test appropriately.”

Rick Salvas, Ripley’s national accounts manager—Broadband, said fiber tool manufacturers are being encouraged to develop tool designs that require fewer tools to perform more steps in the fiber preparation.

“The ultimate goals,” he said, “are to have fewer tools to save preparation time and achieve the end result of reducing installation labor and costs.”

Salvas added, when exterior fiber cables in large plant networks incorporate multiple buffer tubes and fibers, special tools frequently are needed to end and/or access fibers in the buffer tubes without damaging individual fibers. 

“These fibers,” he said, “can be accessed with a midspan access fiber tool, so the selected fibers can be dropped off and routed to other points within the facility. Midspan access tools currently available will either shave out an access window in the buffer tube or provide two slits 180 degrees apart on the buffer tube. The need for an ever-increasing variety of buffer tube sizes and tool design types (shave versus slit) has forced the major fiber tool manufacturers to have three or four tool model offerings.”

The most common midspan tools are for the most common 2- to 3-millimeter (mm) size buffer tubes, Salvas said.

“We presently have tools for buffer tubes from 1.8 mm to 6 mm and are seeing more and more interest in smaller and smaller sizes such as 1.3 mm and 1.4 mm,” he said.

“Prepolished connectors continue to evolve by making it easier for the technician to install them,” said Donald Stone, Kitco Fiber Optics design engineer. “In addition, there have also been improvements in the splice on style connectors as well. These connectors are fusion-spliced onto the fiber cable using a connector with a small bare fiber pigtail.”

Poorly made fiber connections can be expensive. Performing improper polishing procedures, using the wrong grade of polishing papers, underpolishing the connector end-face, overpolishing the connector end-face, or bad scribing techniques can result in broken optical glass, chips, pits, scratches and other problems.

Results of improperly made terminations include high insertion loss measured in decibels (dB), high back reflections that can overdrive the transmitter and high decibel loss that exceeds the optical loss budget for the fiber optic system, Kitco’s Stone said.

Proper training of installation technicians helps prevent such problems.

Panduit, Ripley, Kitco other manufacturers and independent fiber organizations offer training and certification programs that include different levels of training, including Certified Fiber Optics Installer (CFOI) and Certified Fiber Optics Technician (CFOT).

Training is critical when doing fiber termination, Ripley’s Salvas said.

“A fiber cable improperly prepared or an improperly cleaned fiber end can shut down an entire network,” he said. “Studies have revealed that contaminated connectors and shoddy polishing of the connector ferrule was the No. 1­ root cause of network failures. Only by using high-quality specialized fiber tools and approved terminating procedures will fiber terminations be successful. Quality installations are further guaranteed by staying in close communications with manufacturers of quality fiber tool products and staying on top of the latest tool developments and upgrades in termination procedures.”

Panduit’s Burke believes testing and how to certify a link’s performance resulting from a lack of technical training about tester setup and lack of proper test cords are issues the fiber industry does not stress enough.

“Also,” Burke said, “many installers try to use one termination process on all projects. In reality, all installers should be trained in and be able to complete every termination process in order to provide the best solution for each application. One of the reasons this does not happen is simply because of the cost associated with tooling, but training is also a reason.”

Stone emphasized that fiber optic terminations require continuous practice as this is a very perishable skill set.

“Once fiber technicians are trained, they must maintain their termination and polishing skills in order to remain effective,” he said.

About the Author

Jeff Griffin

Freelance Writer
Jeff Griffin, Oklahoma City, is a construction journalist specializing in the electrical, telecommunications and underground utility construction industries. Contact him at .

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