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Commentary: Fiber to the Desktop… Not Yet!

For many years, the proponents of fiber optic cable have claimed total victory over copper-based cabling. We have heard the predictions of fiber to the desktop for more than a decade. Well, we are sti...


June 1, 2003  


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For many years, the proponents of fiber optic cable have claimed total victory over copper-based cabling. We have heard the predictions of fiber to the desktop for more than a decade. Well, we are still waiting.

If the answers is not fiber, and not copper, then what is it? It’s a marriage between these two valuable technologies. Both technologies compliment each other and their sum is greater than the parts. The concept of hybrid networks (fiber and copper) has been around for a while.

Many systems utilize fiber optic backbone cable to “collapse” the distance and to allow the copper-based cable to operate within the distance limitations. Today, we are challenged to deliver more effective solutions at lower prices.

Are you ready for Category 7 UTP cabling? Perhaps we should hold off the introduction of a new and faster set of standards. We should wait until we have sold and installed Category 6 cabling to most of the available market. Recently, several prominent electrical contractors told us about a growing trend in the marketplace. Their customers are tired of paying for the technical treadmill in copper UTP (Unshielded Twisted Pair) cabling.

First, the customers bought “THE Ultimate Cabling Solution,” CAT 5. The EIA/TIA implied that this standard of cabling could support virtually all voice and data applications in the horizontal plane of the building.

Eagerly, many customers bought in. CAT 5 UTP cabling sales and installations took off like the proverbial “gold rush.” Things were great. Profits were high, and everybody was smiling.

Then, the market discovered a few minor shortcomings in the CAT 5 standard. Then, a few more shortcomings were discovered, and so on, and so on, and so on. When it was over, TIA blessed CAT 5e (draft #14), a new standard capable of supporting virtually all voice and data applications in the horizontal plane of the building. This was “THE Revised Final – Ultimate Cabling Solution”.

Then, the market discovered a few minor shortcomings in the CAT 5e standard. Well by now, you figured out how the story goes. Next, TIA blessed CAT 6 cabling. This was “The Definitely Final Revised Ultimate Cabling Solution”.

The consumer has gotten a real financial cable “whipping” as they attempted to build effective cabling infrastructures for their network needs. Before the contractors could even tell the buyers about “THE New Revised Ultimate Cabling Solution” CAT 6+ Limited Combustible cable, along comes the long-forecasted stock market “correction”. Some experts called it “a recession”, while other economists labeled it a “mild depression.

Note: A recession is when the other guy loses his job. A depression is when you lose your job.

We have learned many lessons about cabling and the consumer’s needs during the past decade. We must use this valuable knowledge to structure cost efficient, high-performance cable systems. The systems that we design today should meet the criteria of the buyer.

If the consumer wants a cabling system with a built-in barrier of obsolescence, we must deliver the solution.

By now, the consumer is aware of copper-based UTP cabling constraints. The challenge of addressing increased demands for speed within the existing network parameters dictates a shorter transmission path. Today, our standards for UTP datacom cable are developed for a maximum transmission distance of 100 meters. We must shorten that distance in our design in order to build in the capability of increased performance in the future.

The cabling industry started with voice on one set of cables and data on another. We pumped up the specification and put voice and data into a universal distribution system. Any cable could do any job.

Then we increased the data speed and upgraded the cable standard. The consumer was forced to re-cable from the MDF (Main Distribution Frame) to the IDF (Intermediate Distribution Frame) and from the IDF to the desktop. Many consumers have been through this expensive exercise several times.

End-users want designs that reduce re-cabling requirements, and still deliver-increased performance. The solution is zone design using a hybrid between Universal Copper Cabling and Fiber To The Desktop. TIA is already working on a standard, which envisions ZDF – Zone Distribution Frame. The fiber optic cable is distributed past the traditional IDF type location to serve a smaller cluster of users.

When you begin your next adventure in cabling, you may wish to re-think the traditional layout and consider the embedded benefits of zone design. Don’t allow your pocket book to be squeezed in the “Standards Game”. Work with a responsible distributor and let them help you in the design of the cabling system. Remember, the manufacturers, not the consumers, developed the cabling standards. Don’t let the standards do your thinking for you.

Frank Bisbee is the founding editor of Wireville, an industry newsletter based in Jacksonville, Fla. Diane Santarelli is a its web editor.


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