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Tech Talk: Breaking Tradition

Will fiber ever make it to the desktop?

In early 1995, when schools and universities began rewiring buildings from thin net and Category 3 infrastructures, some predicted that copper network infrastructure cabling had seen its end, because of emerging technologies and the demand for bandwidth speed. Nearly 15 years later, it is hard to believe that copper wire still is king. In most cases, the reason is more than the cost of fiber-optic cable. Evidence from contractors, system designers and installers, along with results obtained by interactive cost models, shows that fiber to the desktop (FTTD) is already cost-effective in many scenarios. Not only is the installed first cost of a fiber-based system often within 20 percent of a copper-based system, but in some cases, fiber also is at cost parity or even less expensive.

So, why does unshielded twisted-pair (UTP) copper cable still dominate to the desktop? Perhaps the largest barrier is perception. Multimode fiber (MMF) is being used extensively in building backbones; however, when users consider cabling options for horizontal pathways, they often choose traditional copper paths rather than considering new information about fiber. So, why hasn't fiber-optic cable made its way to the desktop? The answer is three-pronged.

First, copper cable manufacturers spend millions on making sure copper wire still is specified for LAN infrastructure. Buzzwords such as 100 MBPS, Gigabit and 10 Gigabit are all terms derived from the reinvention of products to create a demand for rewiring.

Also, the manufacturers of data switches have not caught on to the potential of the fiber-to-the-desktop concept. The technology is all in place and has been for years, but there is not an economical 24- or 48-port fiber switch on the market yet.

Finally, people continue to do what they know. There will have to be a paradigm shift in the industry to push fiber to the desktop. Predictions have been made that by 2012, because of the cost of now what is called “Enhanced Category 6E” wire, fiber cabling shipments will surpass UTP.

Also to be considered in fiber's favor are the increasing cost and complexity of installing new grades of UTP copper. Cat 6 and 6E cable and components are more expensive. Getting full throughput on a system requires precise installation techniques and specific testing that installers must learn.

In contrast, fiber-optic cable offers greater pulling strength and is immune to electromagnetic interference (EMI), radio-frequency interference (RFI) and crosstalk. Fiber also is smaller in diameter, lighter in weight and easier to test. Once users are more comfortable installing FTTD, they will enjoy the long-term benefits of fiber cable: higher bandwidth and lower maintenance over a network life of 10 to 15 years.

C. William Day is senior analyst at KBD Planning Group, Young Harris, Ga., a firm specialized in education facilities and technology planning. He can be reached at [email protected].

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