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Fiber-optic Technology: Where is it Heading, Part 1

Dec 10, 2013 10:30 AM, With Bennett Liles

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And so if somebody wants to start an FOA-approved fiber-optic training program what should they do first?

We ask them to contact us and tell us what they’re trying to do. We have a different set of requirements for different kinds of schools. A lot of our trainers are professional trainers and they train in fiber and/or a technology that uses fiber. There are schools that just teach fiber. They teach various applications of fiber exclusively. We have schools that are primarily oriented to the telecom industry or the security industry or the IT industry, and recently we’ve seen a lot of activity in wireless. The fact that all of us now have smart phones and iPads that are tied into the cellular system are creating massive needs for expansion of the cellular system. So we have schools now that teach for bringing fiber to the tower of the cellular system and even up the tower to the antennas. So the independent trainers that we have can be in a specific kind of application. We have manufacturers who offer a certification because the training that they offer, which often leads to their own proprietary certification, is good, but now more and more people have written job documents requiring FOA certification or the equivalent. You’ll find documents that say workers are expected to have a CFOT, and so we work with manufacturers so that they can offer our certification with theirs. But recently we did a tour of schools in Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia that trained people for the energy business because they have coal mines, they have oil and gas exploration and extraction, and they’re working on the shale oil fields and all of those use lots of optical fiber because the closest thing to their kind of work is probably the military work that we do. For example, in an oil field, when they’re doing exploration, they run cables to seismic sensors. Those cables are the same cables that the military uses for tactical cables in the Middle East. With every school that we deal with, we end up spending some time trying to understand what they’re trying to train on and how we can tailor our programs to fit their needs. [Timestamp: 6:10]

I can see why you would have a lot of training prospects in the western Canadian provinces because of the harsh weather and long distances. What’s going on the fiber technology right now? We’re hearing a lot about FTTH, fiber to the home.

Fiber to the home is definitely one of the most active areas, not just in the United States, but the world today. The reason is that people are consuming more and more data over the Internet. I saw statistics recently that on any given night in America, the amount of bandwidth consumed by video exceeds two-thirds of all the data being transmitted on the Internet, and sometimes as much as half of all the data is Netflix alone. [Timestamp: 6:51]

Well, now there’s an advertisement.

Yeah, isn’t that something? People are consuming vast amounts of video and fiber to the home; the home is becoming more and more necessary to provide the bandwidth that’s needed by the typical home user. We live on a hillside in southern California in a relatively remote area. We have cable modem service, DSL, satellite Internet, and we have 4G cellular. And interestingly enough, at 10:00 in the morning, I can get 15Mbps to 20Mbps out of any of those services. But after 3:00 in the afternoon, when the kids start coming home from school and the adults start coming home from work, my bandwidth goes down to a couple of megabits per second because everybody else is trying to download vast amounts of typically entertaining and video. [Timestamp: 7:43]

Pretty much that way in every workplace. Early in the morning, the network is pretty zippy but by the time most people have come in and fired up their machines, things start to bog down some. Where are we at this point as far as multi-mode versus single mode?

Ninety-nine percent of all the fiber used is single mode. It’s what the telcos have been using for 30 years now. The multi-mode fiber is primarily now used in relatively slow-speed local-area networks, security systems, building management systems inside buildings. But we’ve reached the point at which multi-mode fiber is pretty much running at bandwidth. As networks go up to about 10 gigabits per second, multi-mode fiber is just reaching its limits. And what we’re seeing now is single-mode fiber is becoming necessary, but something big is happening. Here in the United States, Verizon alone has connected 10 million users to FiOS, and there’s about 12-15 million total people being connected over fiber in the United States, mostly by Verizon, but there’s 800 other fiber-to-home projects going on. Worldwide more than 100 million subscribers have fiber to the home, and what that has done is turn the market for electronic equipment upside down. When you have those economies of scale, 100 million users, buying fiber optic boxes to plug in on the side of their home, the cost of those boxes goes way down. So we’re talking about something that might have cost $5,000 five years ago is now a couple of hundred bucks. And that fiber-to-the-home technology is starting to get used in large local-area networks and all of those are moving toward networks which we call optical LANs or OLANs, that are based on single-mode fiber and hardware designed for fiber to the home. [Timestamp: 9:39]

Yeah, that’s where it gets real interesting.

Yeah. When you talk about wanting to deliver, for example, services to a convention center, you have to deliver video, you have to deliver cellular wireless, you have to deliver Wi-Fi, you have to deliver plug-in-the-wall type of Cat-5 network connections. And you can get a box that sits on the side of 100 million people’s houses worldwide and is specifically designed to deliver those services. That technology is revolutionizing premises cabling. An interesting thing is that the U.S. military has basically decreed that optical LANs will be used in military facilities. The Department of Homeland Security is building a new headquarters in northern Virginia. By the time they’re through, there will be 100,000 users in this area—bigger than the Pentagon, connected on optical fiber using fiber-to-the-home technology. For 100,000 users, you save 500 tons of copper compared to traditional structured cabling networks. [Timestamp: 10:49]

I think that’s about as much copper as I’ve strung on remotes and installs over the years and I still feel every pound of it.

It’s probably more than most of us have ever seen.

And that’s what we now know as passive optical LANs?

That’s a term that people are using for these LANs based on fiber-to-home technology. And the big advantage of them is that they’re taking advantage of the economy-to-scale fiber to the home. The typical cost of a LAN based on a passive optical LAN structure is about half of the cost of traditional structured cabling based on the TIA 568 standard. It probably will consume 80 percent less power because you replace switches with optical splitters, which are passive components. The really funny thing is to look at a passive optical LAN installation in an environment that was designed for structured cabling because structured cabling. You often look up and see cable trays loaded with Cat-5 cables and you can replace those with a handful of fiber-optic cables. I took a picture of a supervisor on a project at the new Central Library in San Diego that uses a passive optical LAN, and they designed it around structured cabling. So to each work area they have a 4in. conduit embedded in the floor designed to pull 16 Cat-5 cables to a work area. Instead they’re replacing those 16 cables with one Simplex single-mode optical fiber, which looks pretty funny coming out of a 4in. conduit. [Timestamp: 12:20]

Yeah, that looks a little strange and that’s a case where one picture can sort of tell the whole story.

Oh, yeah.

In part two I want to get into some of the comparative advantages and disadvantages of passive optical LANs and the more traditional network structure. We can talk about some of the municipalities that are getting into having their own fiber networks, too. Jim, thanks for being with us. Jim Hayes with the Fiber Optic Association.

Thank you, Bennett.

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