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Fiber-optic Technology: Where is it Heading, Part 2

It’s all going to fiber and the Fiber Optic Association is paving the way by educating the fiber work force in installation and testing.

Fiber-optic Technology: Where is it Heading, Part 2

Dec 24, 2013 1:44 PM,
With Bennett Liles

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Editor’s note: For your convenience, this transcription of the podcast includes timestamps. If you are listening to the podcast and reading its accompanying transcription, you can use the timestamps to jump to any part of the audio podcast by simply dragging the slider on the podcast to the time indicated in the transcription.

It’s all going to fiber and the Fiber Optic Association is paving the way by educating the fiber work force in installation and testing. Jim Hayes from the FOA is back to talk about passive optical LANs and where fiber technology is headed, coming up right now on the SVC Podcast.

SVC: Jim Hayes from the Fiber Optic Association, thanks for being back with us for part two. We were talking before about what’s been happening with fiber-optic technology and we were getting into passive optical LANs. We didn’t get much into the comparative advantages and disadvantages between passive optical LANs and the more traditional networks, so what are the plusses and minuses?

Jim Hayes: The idea of the passive optical LAN is that you use the technology of fiber-to-the-home to create a local area network, but they use some rather interesting technology that cuts the cost tremendously. Prior to this new technology, we built local area networks just like phone systems of 30-40 years ago. We would have a main equipment room where we connected to the outside world, and because we were using Category 5 cable, we could go 100 meters and then we had to put a repeater or switch in. A typical structured cabling network based on what was standardized by the TIA, under a document that everybody knows called TIA-568, we’d go from the main equipment room to a telecom room near the users, and then from there to what they call the horizontal cabling to the work area was based, again, on Cat-5. If you had 1,000 users, you would have 2,000 cables that you would have to deal with. Those who are familiar with local area networks, you go into a wiring room, typically on every floor of a building, and you’re used to seeing just massive numbers of split switches and patch panels. In a passive optical LAN, we have a network that looks really like an apartment building with fiber-to-the-home. Down in the main equipment room, instead of racks of switches and routers that connect to the outside world, we have about a foot-and-a-half tall of rack space with a little box that can handle 8,000 users. That would take three to five racks of equipment to handle with a typical structured-cabling LAN. But with a Passive Optical LAN, let’s say we put it back in the telecom room. We rip out all of the cables and all of the equipment, and all we have is a little, small box with an optical splitter in it. The fiber that comes up from the box in the main equipment room goes through the splitter and connects to 32 different work areas. At each of those work areas, we put in the four-port Ethernet switch, but we can just as easily use the kind of box they put on the side of the house for fiber-to-the-home that gives you video, a phone, and an Internet connection. One fiber to 32 fibers—32 fibers, one fiber to each work area—supports 128 users. [Timestamp: 3:40]

Well, that’s a lot of people.

It’s a lot of people. And all of a sudden we don’t need 128 people requiring 256 copper cables. Two hundred and fifty-six copper cables make a bundle almost 1ft. in diameter. Instead, all we need is some single-mode fibers that are 2 or 3mm in diameter to go out to the work areas. What we have now is something that, as I pointed out in part one, saves a lot of copper. We use single-mode fiber, which has virtually infinite bandwidth. The network, naturally today, runs 2.4Gb downstream and 1.2Gb upstream, so it’s plenty fast for everything we want. Those switches that we put in the work area can connect to, well, anything that runs on IT these days can plug in and it does it with a standard Cat-5 patch cord. [Timestamp: 4:35]

In addition to saving space, one of the biggest things in applications and it’s affecting AV, too, is cloud computing. Now, what effect are fiber networks and cloud computing having on each other?

Fiber optics and cloud computing are like exactly the same thing. The problem with cloud computing is that the people who are pushing the concept tell you, “You store your data on our equipment. We have servers and storage that you store your data here rather than building your own data center.” So a corporation can look at it and say, “Wow, data centers are expensive. They have to be upgraded all the time. They consume lots of power. I can turn around and take this service instead, and my employees will have the same kind of service that they would have if I had my own data center and I can get rid of some of those IT people I would normally have around to support it.” Well, there’s a problem and the problem is that the typical enterprise network, it is running at a gigabit per second these days. That’s the default. The Internet backbone, which connects to the cloud-computing suppliers, is running at 10Gb or 100Gbps. The data centers for the cloud computing typically runs at 10Gbps, and they’re starting to look at 40Gbps and 100Gbps. Now how do these two talk to each other? The corporate network has to connect to the Internet backbone, and there’s somebody in the middle there that we call an ISP, an Internet service provider. When you go around and you talk to companies, you’ll find that most companies, there are still a lot of companies running T1 lines, which is 1.5Mbps. [Timestamp: 6:19]

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Fiber-optic Technology: Where is it Heading, Part 2

Dec 24, 2013 1:44 PM,
With Bennett Liles

They’re going to squeeze everything they can out of the old technology to maximize short-term profit and make the shareholders happy, as any company would try to do.

You’ve got it. It’s like DSL, but a lot of people have DSL and are getting 10Mbps. A few of them are business customers of cable TV companies, and they get up to sometimes 40Mbps. Some companies have things like FiOS, the Verizon fiber, and they are getting up to maybe 150Mbps. But cloud computing, if you’re going to assume that you have 1,000 employees that are going to be continually shuffling files back and forth to some server in a data center that’s remote, you’re going to have to have something faster than a typical Internet connection. What’s happening is companies like Google Fiber. Google said, “We need gigabit connections,” and once they started saying that, Verizon said, “We can do that.” AT&T said, “We can do that.” Where the areas are competitive, that’s what they’re doing. So the next movement toward the ISP connectivity is gigabits per second. [Timestamp: 7:27]

And in some of the places where they’re not competitive and it’s not profitable to run infrastructure to serve sparsely populated areas, some of the smaller municipalities and counties have built fiber networks of their own. I believe Chattanooga, Tenn., just recently went to gigabit on theirs.

They did. Chattanooga is actually doing gigabit Internet supplied over Ethernet to the home, and they’ve been doing it for several years now. The way they did it was they built a municipal network in conjunction with their electrical utility. The same thing happened in Clarksville, Tenn., and Bristol, Tenn., and what they have in common is they all buy power from their organization called Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a WPA project from the 1930’s that supplies electricity throughout the southeast. TVA has helped them build a smart grid utility system so that Chattanooga, when you go talk to the EPB, the Electricity Power Board there that’s running the system, they put fiber into the electric meter on the side of the home and then started delivering triple-play services—voice, data, and video. The big thing is that that service is not hard to deliver. Verizon has 10 million FiOS customers. Most of them are getting 20Mbps or 30Mbps, but it’s throttled. Verizon has announced that they will be rolling out, in all of their areas, up to 850Mbps because that’s the capability of the fiber-to-the-home electronics that they already have installed. We’re going to see more and more of it because it is going to be demanded by applications like cloud computing, and the market forces are going to drive the cost down. In Kansas City, and now Austin, Texas, and Provo, Utah, Google offers gigabit speeds for like 60 bucks a month. Well, I’ve been paying 60 bucks a month for 10 megabits per second. The idea: I’m paying 100 times more than if Google was my ISP. [Timestamp: 9:34]

I think a lot of us are still in the same boat with you on that.

Yeah. But Chattanooga and Clarksville, Tenn., both just announced that they are dropping their price for gigabit connections down to be competitive with Google. Instead of paying $350 a month, you’re going to be able to get gigabit connections for $60 a month. [Timestamp: 9:54]

And of course, no technology is perfect so what are the biggest problems normally encountered with fiber optic installations?

The biggest problem we have in installing fiber is the same problem that caused the creation of the FOA 18 years ago: a poorly trained workforce. We see this daily with people who call us with problems. Anybody who’s installing fiber doesn’t need to be a rocket scientist, but the deal is you need to have some training and you need to have certification, because if a contractor goes in and bids a fiber-optic job and can say that we have trained personnel, they’re certified, they know what they’re doing, we’ll do it right. And if they don’t, I get the phone calls, it seems, from people who mess up the cable pulling it in or particularly don’t know how to test it. [Timestamp: 10:45]

Right, knowing how to test it and find out where there is a problem.

Yeah. Most of the problems we get here at the FOA are testing problems, and 90 percent of them are OTDR problems. The OTDR is this expensive instrument that people think you always need. You don’t always need it, but manufacturers have tried to make them so you push a button and it does all the work for you. Virtually all the phone calls we get are people who bought one, never learned how to use it, just pushed the button, and then it doesn’t work. So I spend time tutoring them. [Timestamp: 11:19]

And we’re talking about the optical time domain reflectometer?


A very smart little machine that can tell you all sorts of things if you know how to use it.

Well, yeah, but no tool is useful unless you know how to use it.

A trained workforce is certainly the key and you would think we would by now have fewer fly-by-night outfits, but now we even have a lot of counterfeit cable.

People are selling counterfeit, particularly Cat 5 cable. It is cable that doesn’t even have copper conductors. It has copper flashed on top of aluminum, and you can’t really punch it down properly because it’s too brittle. It has high resistance, so you can’t run power over Ethernet over it safely, but the big problem we’ve seen with counterfeit cable is they don’t make it with properly rated flammability rating plastics. I’ve actually done a video showing a counterfeit cable burning, compared to a legitimate UL-rated cable. The difference in the flame of the counterfeit cable is just incredible. [Timestamp: 12:17]

And the FOA has plenty of demos like that on your website and you have links to a lot more of that.

Yeah. We try to provide the material that people need to properly understand what they’re doing. We have schools, of course, that do training, but we have free online training at Fiber U—Fiber University— We have a thousand pages of technical information on our website. It’s all free. It’s all because, as we started out saying in part one, we’re chartered to promote professionalism in fiber optics through education, certification, and standards. [Timestamp: 12:53]

Alright, that pretty much says it all. Jim thanks for filling us in on what’s going on with fiber optics and what the FOA is doing to promote the technology and the workforce training. Jim Hayes from the Fiber Optic Association. We’ll keep in touch.

Thank you, Bennett. Always glad to talk to you.

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