Will plastic fiber by used in LANs?

Suddenly a new competitor may be emerging to challenge Category 5 unshielded twisted-pair cabling for local area networks. Graded-index plastic optical fiber is being touted as having performance and cost advantages over UTP.

Dick Livingstone

Suddenly a new competitor may be emerging to challenge Category 5 unshielded twisted-pair cabling for local area networks. Graded-index plastic optical fiber is being touted as having performance and cost advantages over UTP.

Developed by Boston Optical Fiber Inc. (Marlboro, MA), the new fiber medium is generating "lots of excitement," says President Ed Berman. This is because improved product design is bringing plastic optical fiber--long regarded as a novelty item and the poor stepchild of glass fiber--into the same performance range as glass. With a bandwidth greater than 2 gigahertz per 100 meters, graded-index plastic optical fiber surpasses the capacity of copper wire and offers performance that is superior to earlier plastic fibers.

Adding to plastic`s allure, according to Berman, is the fact that "plastic is cost-competitive with a copper-based system." One reason for the lower cost is that less-expensive electronics can be used because plastic fiber`s greater diameter makes alignment and tolerances less critical than is the case with glass fiber. The higher cost of opto-electronics now represents the biggest difference between fiber and copper networks.

Another factor favoring plastic over glass is that it is easier to install. Its larger size makes it easier to handle, and it is also less fragile than glass. In addition, plastic shares the immunity of glass to radio and electrical interference and noise.

Boston Optical Fiber has joined three other companies--Packard-Hughes Interconnect (Irvine, CA), Boeing (Seattle, WA) and Honeywell Inc. (Minneapolis, MN)--to form the High Speed Plastic Network. Packard- Hughes and Honeywell are developing components, termination techniques and connection systems that will be needed before graded-index plastic optical fiber can be used in a fiber-optic network.

Is this new material--and the changes in installation techniques it will usher in--just around the corner? Berman expects the new product to be sampled "soon," but he feels "a full offering may be some time away--perhaps 24 months or so."

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