Several optical waves driving the structured cabling market

In early March, I spent a few days at the Conference on Optical Fiber Communication/National Fiber Optic Engineering Consortium, commonly referred to by its acronyms OFC/NFOEC.

In early March, I spent a few days at the Conference on Optical Fiber Communication/National Fiber Optic Engineering Consortium, commonly referred to by its acronyms OFC/NFOEC. The 2005 conference and exhibition marked the first time these formerly competing events joined forces.

The conference and accompanying exhibition are not specifically focused on structured cabling systems for LANs and customer premises the way that a BICSI event is. OFC/NFOEC includes discussions of optical-fiber technologies in all spheres, from undersea systems that allow communication between continents, to component-level engineering of photonic equipment you and I will never see without dissecting a piece of equipment so expensive we shudder at the thought of even touching it.

But experiencing an event like this is worth the trip, largely because it provides me with some perspective on the business and technological issues that I characterize as market drivers-issues that sooner or later will have an impact on how we do business.

For example, I couldn’t walk 10 feet of the exhibition floor without hearing somebody talking about fiber-to-the-premises. Most of the time, the term they used was fiber-to-the-home, but I much prefer fiber-to-the-premises because it includes those who work in commercial and industrial enterprises and could benefit from a truly high-speed connection to the outside world.

A few years ago, an industry veteran said to me, “People talk about cases where a corporate backbone is a network’s bottleneck. But that’s not the big problem today. The bottleneck is the public network.” It made sense then, and it makes even more sense now. Information is traveling within many corporate networks today at speeds of 100 Mbits/sec to each user, and in most of those same networks, the backbone speed is 1-Gbit. Even in slower networks, users have 10-Mbit/sec pipes to their desks and a backbone speed of 100 Mbits/sec.

But when that information has to leave the corporate network and travel to, say, a branch office in another region, at what speed does it travel? For companies with a single T-1 line, it’s a scant 1.5 Mbits/sec. Yes, I would indeed call that a bottleneck.

And the promise of fiber-to-the-premises for the business customer is some relief from this bottleneck. Regional Bell Operating Companies like Verizon and SBC are bringing singlemode fiber to buildings for the purpose of offering residential customers the holy grail “triple play” of voice, data, and video services. For residences, it can mean a single source for three services they’re already buying (telephone, Internet, and cable TV). For commercial customers, it can be a means of exponentially increasing the speed of connections to the outside world.

This business-side driver of our market forces technological evolution, and evidence of exactly that was on display at the exhibition. Of particular note to me, optical-fiber splicing equipment has gotten more craft-friendly to accommodate the many technicians who climb poles and work in driveways and parking lots to bring fiber to buildings. In general, the equipment is smaller and is much more of a “laptop” device than the computer I lugged with me to the show ever will be. In some cases, the splicers trade capability for size, but in those cases, the equipment still has the essentials for splicing singlemode fibers in an outside-plant environment.

Another means of taking the industry’s temperature at OFC/NFOEC is a traditional market briefing by optical-fiber giant Corning Inc. Among the information offered was that, thanks in large part to fiber-to-the-premises initiatives, the North American market for optical fiber grew by approximately 30% last year over 2003.

Corning also reported demand by application type: long-haul terrestrial/submarine, metro, access, and premises. Premises fiber, which makes up 5% of total worldwide demand, grew by approximately 15% last year. Corning pointed to data centers in particular as the application showing the strongest growth within the premises market.

While they do not quite constitute a 30,000-foot view of the structured cabling industry, the goings-on at this year’s optical-fiber industry event allow us to look at some of the trends that shape the direction our industry is likely to take in the future. We would all be well served to pay some attention to these developments, rather than to have their repercussions catch us by surprise.

PATRICK McLAUGHLIN
Chief Editor
patrick@pennwell.com

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