Fusion splicing in the last mile

June 16, 2022
With efficiency a paramount concern in last-mile fiber installations, fusion splicing has the ability to put and keep a project on track.

By Craig MacMillan and Lucas Mays, AFL

Logisticians, executives and managers alike have long sought to solve the last-mile problem. Each industry sees it take on a different form, and each industry presents its own unique interpretation of the obstacles that make up the last mile. In the courier industry, the last mile refers to a package’s journey from the final carrier facility to the recipient’s doorstep. Some studies in this area have estimated their “last mile” can account for up to 75% of the total cost to deliver their product.

In the telecommunications industry, the delivery of the communications service is relatively passive, aside from repairs necessitated by occasional outages. The last-mile problem as this space presents it, shows up in the form of the individual, physical installation of end-user access infrastructure in homes, businesses, schools or anywhere an access point is added to the network.

The granularity of deploying infrastructure at each customer can make or break a network deployment’s profitability. A successful wide area network build with thousands or even millions of access points, tasks network operators with finding a way to reliably and repeatably deploy the last legs of an install. Three categories of management rise to the top and encompass the focus areas, which drive profitability and efficiency.

1.     Minimize the amount of time spent on each job.

2.      Waste as little material as possible.

3.      Effectively prioritize tasks for the project.

There are numerous aspects to building the last mile, but these three objectives are overarching drivers of its success.

In the journey of a cable as it’s strung from pole to pole in search of each strand’s final destination, undoubtedly challenges come up along the way. Within the last mile, however, experience would dictate that the hard work is just beginning. If a cable makes a 100-mile trip to a home, business, school, etc., the cable will have covered 99% of its journey when it reaches the last mile, but it will not yet have overcome 99% of the installation challenges it will face. Not even close.

Existing infrastructure, nature take their toll

As the status of a build progresses, two primary time-killers tend to rear their ugly heads and become the reason that last-mile management measures must be put into place: working around existing infrastructure, and mitigating the effects of nature. While these factors are very intuitive and expected, that doesn’t negate their impact. A storm at the wrong time, a precarious tree limb or an unforeseen infrastructure challenge can drain precious resources from what was initially a predictable, quick and effectual task. Those two sources of headache become the mechanisms that stretch out work timelines, generate waste and confuse work priorities.

While it can sometimes be helpful to have some structure already in place, existing infrastructure can often be a hindrance rather than a help. It’s very much akin to the network equivalent of a home renovation—you never know what you’re going to find, but you must work with what’s there. Therefore, it’s necessary to have tools at the operator’s disposal to overcome the challenges imposed by the unforgiving environment of working out in the field. The challenges that accompany the installation of last-mile infrastructure in a neighborhood, in a home or in a business park are complex and unpredictable. Working around nature or existing infrastructure is both a work of art and a measure of dedication by itself, but when you use reliable tools and efficient work methods, you can overcome those complexities with agility.

The criticality of splice points

The weakest part of a fiber has long been associated with splice points. Mechanical splices are notoriously unreliable, thus requiring frequent rework and introducing higher splice loss in the network. They are not environmentally robust and they greatly increase material cost and waste when compared to fusion splices. Because of these shortcomings and the demanding precision of high-capacity network deployments, fusion splicing holds a critical position in the telecommunications industry. In its infancy, however, one major weakness of fusion splicing was the time it took to put two fibers together. That is notwithstanding the reliability of the splice itself, and whether it would need to be redone.

Thanks to advancements in fusion splicing technology, what once took several minutes for even the most skilled operators can now be done in a matter of seconds. That’s a distinction no other past or present fiber joining method can claim. Fusion splicing technology has continued to mature and is more reliable, stronger and faster than ever. This light-speed advancement translates to a myriad of ways in which the last mile can start to lose its jagged edge and become quite surmountable to a wider array of operator teams. For example, the advancements in optics and image processing technology have enabled fusion splicers the ability to pinpoint the core’s position within an optical fiber, which enables core alignment despite error in the concentricity of the core within the cladding. This capability produces a nearly perfect splice, almost indistinguishable from the original, unbroken fiber.

As installers encounter roadblocks from environmental challenges or infrastructural obstacles, each one presents opportunities to waste time, waste material, and waste effort. Time, materials, and effort all are critical to the success of any piece of work and wasting them is a significant contributor to inefficiency and loss of profitability. When nature strikes, or when existing infrastructure demands a workaround, the last thing that operators should worry about is the reliability of their equipment and the quality of work product that they can produce. With that in mind, it’s paramount that installations be done right the first time—and every time. A bad splice results in needing to re-splice, which is undesirable at any time, but especially so when it’s crunch time on a project or if the installed fiber has a very short slack loop. In either of these situations, any mistake, misstep or malfunction can be the difference between a successful execution and an installer’s worst nightmare. Because of its critical role in network installation, fusion splicing has the potential to interrupt the mistake cycle by buying back time, maximizing usable material, and reducing the effort required to implement cost-effective solutions.  

Although mitigating time spent on the project almost always yields a higher return on investment, installation time reductions can be the last mile’s biggest challenge. Spending more time than budgeted on a given install can reduce or completely erode any profitability from that subscriber. Modern fusion splicing has proven its capability to streamline the job’s deliverables and optimize the installation process despite the inevitable challenges each project presents. Be it FTTx, local network deployment, or long-haul cabling installations, both single fiber and mass fusion splicing have made many aspects of installation faster and more efficient. Faster splicing makes reel-to-reel termination more profitable, and the maturity of modern fusion splicing technology gives operators and managers alike the confidence to rely on their work, cut down on rework and reduce downtime.

Prepared for the unpredictable

In the last mile, situations change and new obstacles emerge. Regardless of how precisely a project is planned out, something will go awry, by human error or circumstances outside the scope of control. The ability to quickly shift priorities is a significant determinant of whether or not a project will incur needless cost. That’s because as it translates to profitability, very often the most valuable commodity is time, because the highest-priority piece of work is determined by what can or cannot “wait in line.”

The maturation of splicing-automation and splicing-optimization technology has unlocked the potential for operators to maximize the amount of work done in a given time—bringing that often-unpredictable labor characteristic much more under the operators’ control. Because the time needed to quickly splice and move on continues to get shorter, managers and operators are finding more options for priority management. While the burn time for one individual splice is relatively insignificant, the time quickly adds up with increasing fiber counts. Consequently, faster splicing times and more reliable burns mean the bar is higher for triggering a priority shift, enabling managers to make and keep more accurate work schedules and keep teams on track.

Increasing data demands, existing infrastructure, and nature itself often concatenate in what would appear to be an intentional effort to make last-mile-management goals difficult to reach. It would be foolish to deny the formidability of the barriers imposed by the last mile, but because of the ability to contribute to regaining lost time and efficiency, it’s precisely here that high-quality fusion splicing shines the brightest.

When time is of the essence, fusion splicing delivers speed. When there is no wiggle room left, fusion splicing delivers reliability and confidence. And when the schedule is carefully laid out and demanding, fusion splicing delivers the performance to get the job done. Now, a broken fiber isn’t the death-knell for a profitable day’s work and adding in a splice point won’t compromise a signal’s fidelity. High-quality fusion splicing has the potential to transform a sluggish, obstacle-ridden “drag-out” into a well-oiled deployment, delivering robust service to each customer and profitable returns to the sponsoring provider. Modern, field-portable splicers provide quick, reliable and quality splices, and they have also ushered in the ability to overcome last-mile deployment snags that would otherwise cripple an installation’s effectiveness. This allows for the execution of profitable network deployments that extend fiber’s reach, overcome common obstacles and conquer “the last mile.”

Craig MacMillan and Lucas Mays are applications engineers with AFL.

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