Fiber-to-the-desk will change the installation business forever

Imagine the premises wiring market changing overnight, with a new wiring solution offering the ease of use, bend radius, and flexibility of copper, but with the unlimited bandwidth of optical fiber. And imagine all this being offered at absolute cost parity with copper wire. Driven by urgent end-user needs and complex market demands, cabling-industry technologists have long been trying to develop such an optical-fiber medium; if it were available today, it would dramatically affect the cabling i

Feb 1st, 1997

Roger H.D. Lacey

3M Telecom Systems Div.

Imagine the premises wiring market changing overnight, with a new wiring solution offering the ease of use, bend radius, and flexibility of copper, but with the unlimited bandwidth of optical fiber. And imagine all this being offered at absolute cost parity with copper wire. Driven by urgent end-user needs and complex market demands, cabling-industry technologists have long been trying to develop such an optical-fiber medium; if it were available today, it would dramatically affect the cabling industry and might quickly change the medium of choice for horizontal building wiring.

Backbone data transmission now proceeds at 100 megabits per second, and forecasts indicate that 1000 Mbits/sec (or 1 gigabit per second) will be needed by the year 2000, so optical fiber is already widely used in this application. However, with horizontal cabling, cost remains the primary consideration. With a fiber-versus-copper cost differential in the range of 3:1, fiber-to-the-desk proposals have had to employ complex life cycle cost models and amortization schedules that include the cost/benefit of future-proofing in order to be acceptable. A dramatic leveling of the initial installed-cost differential between fiber and copper could turn the wiring market upside down, making it necessary only to prove the technological benefits of fiber in order to substitute it for copper in horizontal cable runs.

Labor cost for fiber-to-the-desk installations currently accounts for about 40% of the total initial system cost, so reducing labor will help bring about the required cost parity. The next generation of optical fiber promises to speed and simplify installation by delivering a heartier, more-flexible cabling medium. When you consider that the architecture of fiber-to-the-desk systems is currently limited for the designer by such technical characteristics as the bend radius of conventional optical fiber, a new generation of premises fiber will surely open up new opportunities in terms of both installation practices and system design.

It is also true that the physical strength of fiber cable has long been underestimated. From the perspective of the designer or installer, if the installation demands of the next generation of fiber-optic wiring are the equivalent of copper`s and require no new skills, the scales will tilt even farther toward fiber.

What would these technological breakthroughs do to the cabling industry? For one thing, they could create a hitch in the life cycles of both fiber and copper products. To understand this, imagine building-wiring technology charted along a curve representing market maturation. Right now, Category 5 copper cabling is entering a stage of market maturity. Meanwhile, the use of optical fiber in local area network (LAN) backbone architectures could be charted on an upward climb, since it is still in the growth stage. Fiber-to-the-desk is emerging in the market. Studies predict that the acceptance of optical fiber using current technology will continue to grow slowly but steadily.

However, with the advent of dynamic new technologies, fiber-to-the-desk will be catapulted into the growth stage by the year 2000. Copper will be difficult to justify as the initial installed cost of fiber-to-the-desk approaches parity with it and surpasses it in lifetime cost-efficiency. What customer would agree to a copper solution that will have to be pulled out and rewired again in three to seven years to accommodate the demand for bandwidth, which is growing at 20% per year?

Even today, fiber-to-the-desk cabling systems are seeing an impressive response from the market. In a recent Sage Research Network Cabling Market Analysis, 30% of end-users said they plan to migrate to fiber-to-the-desk in the near future. And in a recent manufacturer`s survey, 92% of respondents said they would use fiber in their next wiring project if a breakthrough allowed fiber-to-the-desk to be cost-competitive with Category 5 copper.

It seems clear that the next generation of fiber-optic technology will change the premises-wiring industry for installers and end-users alike. Newly developed fiber systems will capitalize on the existing skills of installers everywhere, while powerful market forces will come into play as the cabling industry struggles to accommodate the bandwidth demands of the information age. In the future, price and ease of installation will no longer be major obstacles to the full deployment of optical fiber in LAN systems--even in fiber-to-the-desk.

Roger H. D. Lacey is vice president of the 3M Telecom Systems Div. (Austin, TX).

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