Fiber optics takes a giant step backward

At this winter`s quarterly meeting of the TR-41.8 committee of the Telecommunications Industry Association (tia--Arlington, VA), manufacturers of fiber-optic cabling systems and components had an opportunity to show some solidarity and live up to their own press. Instead, they took a giant step backward.

Fiber optics takes a giant step backward

Arlyn S. Powell, Jr.

Group Editorial Directo

arlynp@pennwell.com

At this winter`s quarterly meeting of the TR-41.8 committee of the Telecommunications Industry Association (tia--Arlington, VA), manufacturers of fiber-optic cabling systems and components had an opportunity to show some solidarity and live up to their own press. Instead, they took a giant step backward.

At the fall tia meeting, five fiber-optic connector manufacturers put forward small-footprint connectors to pave the way for fiber-to-the-desk. The game was that each manufacturer would hawk its wares to committee members, and then ballots would be filled out assessing each product using a number of different criteria. The top-ranked products would then be presented for a final vote at this winter`s tia meeting. The winner would be recommended in the tia`s commercial building wiring standard, as the SC connector currently is.

When the votes were tallied, how-ever, there were not several finalists; there was only one. The mt-rj fiber- optic connector from a consortium of amp, Siecor, Hewlett-Packard, USConec, and Fujikura was the only one to garner enough votes to be put forward at the next tia meeting. The primary had, in effect, become the election.

Even though all five manufacturers had agreed to the ground rules, a campaign was immediately begun to discredit the selection process. The upshot was that, at the winter meeting, each manufacturer agreed to go its separate way and make its own products. The tia would not recommend the product that its members thought best in the standard; the marketplace would have to decide.

A few years ago, fiber-optics manufacturers banded together to form the Fiber Optics lan Section (fols) of the tia. Its purpose has been to promote fiber-to-the-desk and to counter some of the supposedly unfounded claims made by proponents of copper-cabling systems touting the benefits of that medium versus optical fiber. One of the fols`s strongest arguments has been that optical-fiber technology is mature and stable and that it is getting more and more installer-friendly.

Following the tia meeting, though, one wonders about this claim. Most fiber-optic textbooks list nine or ten non-proprietary fiber-optic connector designs. There are presumably a number of proprietary designs as well. It was agreed to fix on the SC connector to do away with the alphabet soup then being served-- sma, D4, mini-bnc, ST, SC, FC and fc/pc, fddi, Escon, and biconic. Most industry observers agree that the SC connector has not caught on as it was expected to and, in the meantime, it has been overtaken by the need for a small-footprint device to facilitate high-density patching. Hence, the current new-generation fiber-optic connector derby.

If the five competitors had been able to agree on a single connector design, it would have gone a long way toward fostering fiber-to-the-desk. Now network managers have a choice: Use the generic 8-pin modular jack made by most manufacturers of unshielded twisted-pair copper components, or select one of the five proprietary small-footprint fiber-optic connector designs now vying for market dominance and hope it`s still around in two years. The wise choice, it seems to me, would be to stay with the generic, open-system copper design--and making that choice will continue to delay fiber-to-the-desk.

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