Connections +
Feature

A Leap Forward For Fiber

While copper may still rule in most office environments, real-life fiber advances can be found everywhere: from the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission to FTTx and the new-age home.


May 1, 2006  


Print this page

Will fiber ever go mainstream? The answer to that question depends on who you ask. Fiber vendors say that as long as bandwidth needs continue to rise and equipment costs continue to fall, fiber optic cable will eventually replace copper.

Meanwhile, many analysts and copper vendors continue to chant the same mantras — it costs more, it is more delicate, it is only justifiable where copper is not suffice.

In terms of this ongoing debate, 2006 will prove to be a more important year than most, since the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) is to complete the Augmented Cat 6 standard for 10 Gbps copper in July.

Although several manufacturers already sell 10GBase-T equipment, market penetration thus far is not substantial, according to Thomas Scheibe, manager, product management TMG for Cisco Systems Inc.

When comparing shipments of 10G and 1G port shipments, Scheibe notes: “The 10G market is still in its early growth phase,” although he cites “very healthy 10G growth numbers for the last couple years.”

While fiber may not currently be mainstream in the eyes of all observers, it is certainly cross-river and inter-country.

Fiber links the U.S.-Canadian border control plazas of the Queenston-Lewiston Bridge, which spans the Niagara River. The fiber path delivers security, video surveillance, toll facility, and traffic systems data from the bridge to a new operations center in Lewiston, N.Y.

Common arguments drove the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission (NFBC) to choose fiber over copper- better security, lower cost over the 10,000-foot deployment, and greater bandwidth to handle video surveillance and other data needs.

What makes this project notable is that it is the first international border crossing to deploy Air-Blown Fiber (ABF). NFBC brought in the FutureFlex ABF system from Sumitomo Electric Lightwave Corp., a provider of optical fiber products, to reduce future time and labour costs, achieve what Sumitomo calls “bandwidth on demand”, and optimize fast response and transmission rates necessary for crisis management.

To install ABF, crews first place empty tube cable, then use compressed nitrogen to blow fiber through the cables at speeds of up to 150 feet per minute.

Kurt Templeman, Sumitomo product manager for ABF Enterprise Networks, recalls the initial 7,000-foot bridge “blow” taking less than 80 minutes, once the tube cable was installed.

Dark fiber didn’t figure in this project. Should NFBC need more bandwidth in the future, two installers can blow old fiber out of the tube cable (NFBC can reuse this fiber elsewhere, if it so chooses) and blow in newer fiber.

Also, extra empty tubes within the cable can accept more fiber when needed. Upgrades and moves, adds and changes (MACs) are forecast to be much less expensive than if NFBC installed traditional fiber, primarily because they require no construction permits and a fraction of the time and labour. Adding or replacing conventional pulled cable would disrupt traffic on the 4th busiest commercial border crossing between Canada and the United States.

Templeman claims that when customers add forecasted upgrade savings to the initial installation cost, ABF is 97% more cost effective than traditional cabling per network upgrade or MAC.

In use for over 15 years, ABF has grown in popularity in the past few years wherever network designers stipulate that LANs be readier to adopt emerging bandwidth-rich technologies.

The Niagara project showcases fiber in its emerging role as LAN infrastructure. Roberta Fox, senior partner at Mount Albert, Ont. information technology and telecommunications consultancy Fox Group Consulting, followed more conventional thinking when she specified Cat 6 to the desktop at her new head office.

Relative to copper, Fox cites a higher skill level needed to install fiber and its more delicate nature.

Fox had fiber run between buildings on her campus, since “our entire campus will be Ethernet based, using VoIP and other IP-based applications all running on Ethernet over fiber.”

Richard Perron, product manager for fiber at Belden CDT, a manufacturer of high-speed electronic cables, provides insight on Fox’s views.

“Historically, because of technology differences, the overall copper solution becomes less expensive than fiber, due to the cost of electronics,” he writes in an e-mail.

“That overall cost will drive the customer decision, even though the difference in deployment cost is getting smaller and smaller.”

NCR customer experiences are also similar to Fox’s, according to Michael Zoellner, director of multi-vendor and networking for the Dayton, Ohio company’s worldwide customer services division.

Many of the clients of this provider of transaction systems and data warehouses still have not upgraded since they don’t need the bandwidth. When it comes to NCR’s retail market, Zoellner calls fiber “speed overkill.” Customers use it only in lengths over 300 feet, primarily in larger stores. “(Fiber) will eventually come,” he says, “but not in the next five years.”

David Knox, global project manager for NCR Site Prep Services, a division that includes a portfolio of cabling and site assessment services as well as power protection products, adds that the proposals that are coming across his desk from almost every spectrum out there are for wireless.

Citing client desire for fewer cables of any kind, he says four or five access points at 100 Mhz cover a large store’s needs, including point-of-sale devices, as well as computers, scanners, printers, and other equipment.

FTTx is hot

Also, Knox notes a limiting factor for many customers: “Everyone’s communicating over T1 circuits over the Internet. The most you’re going to do is 1.4 Mbps.

“The biggest market is cable, where you get movies on demand. Now you’re pushing some bandwidth.”

Fiber’s champions might agree. In March, Anaheim, Calif. hosted a major gathering of fiber’s proponents, the OFC/NFOEC 2006.

William Graham, president of fiber optic cable installation and maintenance training firm Mississauga Training Consultants, returned from the show to report widespread talk of FTTx — Fiber to the Home/Premises/anywhere.

FTTx was the show’s key buzz to Graham’s ears. “Everybody had product for that,” he says. Graham gathered books on the topic from major organizations like EXFO, ADC, and IEEE. “People want the bandwidth, and houses that have it are more saleable,” he says, citing increasing numbers of telecommuters, home-based businesses, bandwidth-hungry games, rising numbers of online transactions, and the growing trend to bring different services — television, telephone, Internet access — into the home through one pipe.

Developments in voice-data-video (VDV) and the need for increased use of fiber in data centres should spur a sales growth of 5-10% this year, according to Frank Murawski, president of FTM Consulting Inc., a market research consultant firm that tracks trends in the structured cabling industry.

He does not see Cat 6 copper making headway in the 10Gbps cable market, since installers typically choose fiber for such speed.

“Copper has always dominated the market. Fiber cabling is expected to become the dominant cabling media for structured cabling system applications, such as data centres, campus and Fiber-to-the-Zone (FTTZ). In addition, fiber cabling will continue to be the dominant cabling used in riser cabling subsystems.

“VCSEL technology offers a low-cost alternative to more expensive regular laser light sources,” adds Murawski, and the industry is moving from 62.5 micron to 50 micron laser optimized multimode fiber to accommodate VCSEL used in 1 Gb/s and 10 Gb/s applications.”

In a press release, the Fiber Optic Association (FOA) proclaims skyrocketing demand for FTTx, fiber-optic network installers, and the need for installer training.

To that end, the FOA has introduced a new certification program for Fiber To The Home/Premise (FTTx) tec
hnicians.

The aforementioned demand, according to the release, comes mainly from major phone companies such as Bell Canada and others seeking to replace their current infrastructure with fiber to offer DSL speeds to compete with CATV.

CATV providers themselves are looking at fiber as their installed coax approaches the end of its useful life.

Hospitals are also noted adopters as the days of film x-rays give way to digital images, which are both large and high quality.

Helping to drive this demand are products that are easier to install (including pre-terminated cables), an increasing number of installers familiar with the product, and the availability of better installation and testing tools.

Like other optical technology promoters, Graham cites copper’s distance limit of 90 metres as a limit, but in an office environment, that isn’t necessarily a barrier.

Doug Coleman, manager of technology and standards for fiber optic telecommunications provider Corning Cable Systems, a division of Corning Inc., claims that innovative optical cabling architecture facilitates copper drops to the desktop.

Extending optical uplinks all the way to the switch in a telecommunications enclosure (TE) deeper into the horizontal space, network installers can then drop short lengths of copper to the desktop. Coleman claims that the overall TE solution price has been shown to be 40% less than extending copper all the way to the desktop from the telecommunications room.

The upcoming Augmented Cat 6 standard, copper’s latest push in the bandwidth demand race to 10GigE, may help such architectures flourish.

As with fiber optics, for which 10-Gig products hit the market in 2001, a year before the standard, 10Gbps copper is already available, even though the two groups finalizing standards for it will not finish their work until later this year.

The TIA, as mentioned, should have a new version of Cat 6 ready by the summer of 2006. At the same time, task force 802.3an, part of the IEEE 802.3 working group, is developing a protocol for 10-Gig Ethernet over augmented Cat 6.

As the standards are set, debate in the market continues. Copper’s proponents point to Cat 6a as another reason to stick with copper, while those who push fiber deployment wonder if copper’s known weaknesses such as alien crosstalk, bulkier cables, reduced electronics, 10G port density, and high power requirements (15-20watts/channel), will continue to plague it in its Cat 6a incarnation.

“It’s 23-guage, which makes for a thicker cable” than fiber, says Corning’s Coleman, who also compares Cat 6a copper’s foreseen latency at 3 microseconds to less than 10 nanoseconds for fiber. “Electronics are the bottleneck,” he says, since latency restricts where network architects can deploy 10GBaseT.

As for the desktop PCs that house some of those electronics, their usage has long been recognized as below maximum.

For this reason, architects propose another solution that happens to bring fiber to the “desktop” more cost-efficiently. Organizations such as the U.S. federal government and large corporations are currently exploring utility computing configurations.

In utility computing, also known as computing on demand, all computers sit together in a central location.

Input/output connections then sprout from the processing centre to keyboard-video-mouse setups at people’s desks.

Organizations thus intend to leverage more of their investment in processing power by making each individual machine run closer to its capacity.

As a consequence, says Bill Schultz, vice president of marketing for hardware-based connectivity solutions provider Transition Networks of Minneapolis, Minn., “this central location would require fiber be used because in most organizations 100 meters would not be sufficient to reach all of the users.”

By the same token, for traditional one-PC-to-desktop setups, Schultz says that a mix of fiber and copper will continue to reign for the foreseeable future outside of applications requiring high bandwidth or stepped-up security.

As the tools people use on the job continue to evolve, their bandwidth needs may make Schultz reconsider his statement.

Kevin Paschal R&D manager, and David Hall, product manager at the fiber optics cable division of communications cable manufacturer Commscope Inc. identify VDV as the technology that will push the limits of today’s networks.

Today’s growing VDV and other bandwidth-hungry applications include: IP video cameras (currently replacing conventional video surveillance cameras); identification card readers; HVAC monitoring and control; and other status-monitoring devices ready to communicate over IP.

“The logical option is to add this traffic to existing networks, rather than maintain separate networks,” they write. Prognostications? Both Paschal and Hall believe that “in the standard horizontal application, copper will remain the dominant player in the near term (next five years).”

Not everybody accepts this widely held belief, however. Consider the experience of one of Graham’s clients in Thorold, Ont., who installed fiber throughout a pulp and paper mill in 1980.

“It was really expensive back then,” Graham notes. “They were daring to do it, but it’s met their needs for the last 26 years. It’s still doing fine for them. They’ve saved one terrific pile of money.”

Luigi Benetton is a Toronto-based freelance writer. He can be reached at Luigi@LuigiBenetton.com.