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The Cabling Cost Curve Turns Toward Fiber

Fiber on the backbone, copper to the desktop. For years, that's been the book on premises wiring management. Chances are that book will be rewritten in the next year or so. Several manufacturers of fiber-optic products claim they have come up with labor-saving techniques that dramatically cut the cost of installing fiber to the desktop. These techniques-combined with continued price reductions for fiber cabling and components-could bring the overall cost of fiber installation close to that for Category 5 unshielded twisted pair (UTP) copper wiring.

If that happens, the rationale for installing Category 5 UTP would vanish. Right now, Category 5 UTP is championed primarily as an interim wiring solution that handles 100-Mbit/s speeds (proponents say 155-Mbit/s ATM also is possible) at a significantly lower cost than fiber or shielded twisted-pair (STP) wiring schemes. Once faster technologies like 622-Mbit/s ATM emerge, users probably will have to rip out Category 5 wiring and replace it with fiber, which not only handles higher speeds (1 Gbyte/s or more) but also has a much greater operating range (2 kilometers, as opposed to Category 5's 100-meter operating limit).

The strategy of using Category 5 UTP as an interim solution has been predicated on the wide disparity between the costs of installing Category 5 wiring and fiber cabling. If fiber vendors are correct, that gap is going to shrink considerably in the coming months.

"The material, labor costs, and skills required to install and maintain copper cable supporting 100-Mbit/s transmissions have increased, while costs for fiber cable installation and maintenance are declining," says Dan Orband, senior program administrator at IBM. "As a result, a fiber plant capable of supporting up to 1-Gbit/s transmissions can be designed and installed for prices within 30 percent of 100-Mbit/s copper systems," Given that price difference, the decision to install wiring with a fairly limited shelf life doesn't make much sense.

The projected drop in fiber cabling costs apparently is going to catch managers of premises wiring plants by surprise. In a recent survey of the cabling plans of 100 companies, JLP Associates (San Jose, Calif.) found that wiring managers expect Category 5 deployment to increase from 16 percent today to 46 percent in 1995. Only 3 percent of those responding to the survey said they would be running fiber to the desktop. As fiber costs fall, wiring plant managers are going to have to rethink their long-term strategies-or risk investing in technology with rapidly diminishing short-term gains.

Fiber's two most obvious advantages are speed and operating range. "Inside a building, either monomode or multimode fiber will support gigabit speeds," says Mike Peppler, manager of product marketing at Amp Inc. (Harrisburg, Pa.), a vendor of fiber and copper cables and connection components. Other than for very short cable runs, copper wiring always will be limited to megabit speeds. Because of signal attenuation, copper becomes unreliable beyond 100 meters, while fiber runs can stretch to 2 km before the signal must be repeated.

Beyond speed and range, fiber offers two more key advantages over copper. First, unlike copper cable, fiber is immune to electromagnetic interference, which means that it can be installed adjacent to equipment like photocopiers and fluorescent lights-or in environments like factory floors-without affecting the data signal. Second, fiber cable is an intrinsically secure medium because it can't be tapped: Any break in the cable disrupts the light signal and instantly results in an outage.

Vendors say falling fiber installation costs are attributable to two factors. One is a drop in the cost of the fiber cables and components (such as connectors and patch panels). The other, and probably more significant, factor is the development of new techniques that cut the amount of time needed to terminate fiber connections.

Cost cuts for cabling and components are being driven by improved production techniques, as well as the use of less expensive connector materials. In the past, for example, the part of the fiber connector that holds the fiber line in place (called a ferrule) was made of ceramic. Now, less expensive plastic and stainless steel ferrules are being used.

Cost reductions also are reflected in the falling prices of fiber-based network adapter cards. Prices for FDDI equipment, for example, have fallen by about 50 percent in the last year. Today, the cheapest FDDI implementations cost around $1,500 per node (including the cost of adapter and concentrator port), although the average price is still about $2,500 per node.

Prices are expected to drop further, as vendors start cutting profit margins to compete with copper-based high-speed LAN products and as cards arrive that implement lower-cost 850-nanometer transceivers, rather than the 1,300-nm transceivers specified in the FDDI standard. Raylan Corp. (Palo Alto, Calif.), a maker of fiber concentrators and adapters, says that using 850-nm components will allow it to offer FDDI cards for the same price as today's FDDI-over-copper products. The first sub-$1,000 FDDI adapters are expected early next year.

"The costs of the fiber cable and connectors are now comparable to copper," says Matthew Fagan, a spokesman for 3M Corp. (Minneapolis), which makes both fiber and copper cabling and connectors. But Anixter Inc. (Skokie,Ill.), an independent distributor of third-party copper and fiber cabling and connector components, says the cost of fiber cabling and components still is more than double that of Category 5 UTP equivalents. Anixter does say that fiber is now cheaper than STP wiring. And even with the price disparity cited by the vendor, fiber works out to be less expensive than Category 5 UTP on a per-Mbytes/s basis when maximum speeds are considered.

To spread out the cost of migrating to fiber, organizations could opt to use 10-Mbit/s Ethernet or 4- or 16-Mbit/s token ring adapters and concentrators that can run over fiber cable. For instance, the 1100 Series Ethernet-over-fiber concentrator from Optical Data Systems Inc. (Richardson, Texas) costs $180 per port. The vendor's 677 Ethernet-over-fiber adapter costs $495. Another alternative is to convert older Ethernet and token ring adapters to fiber duty using a transceiver like the TRC8223-PC from Andrew Corp. (Orland Park, Ill.), which costs $395. The cost difference between these transition technologies and full-fledged fiber is becoming slimmer, however.

As expensive as fiber components have been, labor costs have contributed the most to fiber's reputation for exorbitance. The basic problem is the amount of time and effort needed to terminate a fiber optic connection.

Early fiber installations were particularly labor-intensive. A specialist had to use a fusion splices, a bulky and expensive (about $20,000) piece of equipment, to melt fiber strands and fuse them to connectors. The development of epoxy bonding helped cut installation cost to an extent. Epoxy bonding, a four-stage process, is much easier than fusion splicing, but it still takes a lot of time. First, the epoxy resin must be prepared and applied to the fiber connectors. Second, the connector and cable must be mechanically spliced, or crimped, with a crimping gun. The third, and most time-consuming, step is to cure, or dry the epoxy using ultraviolet light or a conventional heat source, such as a portable oven. The final step is to polish the connection by hand.

The curing process can take anywhere from 10 minutes to several hours. By doing several connections simultaneously, installers can cut the average termination time down to about 10 to 15 minutes-faster, but still not nearly as fast as copper terminations.

The third generation of fiber-termination technology is bringing installation time down to five minutes or less-making labor costs

almost a no issue. A couple of fast-installation options are available. One approach, taken by Amp with its Lightcrimp product and Siecor (Hickory, N.C.) with its Camlite offering, involves the use of preterminated fiber cable that simply has to be crimped onto a connector using a crimping gun. By eliminating the epoxy curing process, installation time is reduced to an average of about two minutes, according to Amp. The downside is that signal loss is somewhat higher than with fusion splicing of epoxy bonding.

Amp estimates that the average hourly rate charged in the U.S. for fiber installations is $40. At that rate, a 15-minute epoxy bonding installation carries a $10 labor cost. A two-minute installation with Lightcrimp costs only about $1.30 in labor, Amp says-almost eight times less than epoxy bonding labor costs. In areas where labor costs are higher than the average, cost savings are even greater.

In an alternative approach, some vendors are refining the epoxy bonding process to speed installation. 3M's Hotmelt Fiber Connector comes loaded with a fast-drying epoxy glue. To make a connection, the installer heats up the Hotmelt connector to soften the epoxy, inserts a preterminated fiber cable, and then leaves the connection to dry. The entire process can be completed in as little as five minutes, 3M claims.

AT&T has developed as epoxy glue that dries in less than five minutes, the vendor claims. "I'm not sure you could install a coaxial connector as quickly," says John Struhar, a member of the technical staff in AT&T's fiber optic application engineering group.

Users confirm that the cost of installing fiber cabling is coming down fast. "We paid a 10 percent premium to wire our building with fiber instead of STP copper cable," says Terry Gunter, a communications specialist at the Federal Reserve Bank (Dallas). As part of its move into a new building last year, the bank installed fiber to connect 1,000 token ring nodes. It's worth noting that the conventional epoxy bonding was used to install the cabling; the bank had tested Siecor's crimp-on connectors but chose the conventional epoxy solution because it provides lower signal loss, says Gunter.

"I was surprised to find that the cost of fiber was compatible with Category 5 copper," says Troy Sprenger, network systems manager for finance information services and technology at the Richardson (Texas) Independent School District. Sprenger's group has now completed eight fiber installations, totaling some 400 LAN nodes. The sites were all installed using 3M's Hotmelt connectors.

The first installation tackled by the district, a 30-node site, had an average cost per node of $665 (including adapters); Category 5 UTP would have cost only about $42 per node (about 6 percent) less, Sprenger estimates.

Sprenger says the best thing about installing fiber is that it eliminates the need to re-cable further down the road--a view also held by Gunter of the Federal Reserve Bank. "On average, our copper schemes last about three years, but if this fiber doesn't last 10 years I'll be greatly disappointed," Sprenger says.

Sprenger and Gunter also refute the commonly held notion that fiber cabling damages easily and consequently is more expensive to maintain. In fact, Strenger says that installing fiber has enabled him to reduce the number of staffers allocated to cabling maintenance.

Fiber vendors blame the perception of fiber as a delicate cabling medium on misinformation. "Since the proposal to run 100-Mbit/s over UTP surfaced in 1991, makers of LAN equipment and copper cable have waged a propaganda campaign to rival the best of the late 1930's," says D'Arcy Roche, president of Raylan. Fiber's pull strength (the maximum pressure that can be exerted on the cable before damage occurs) is 200 lbs., eight times that of Category 5 UTP, Roche asserts.

Fiber vendors also point out that while independently tested and approved fiber cables and connectors are now commonly available, testing labs such as Underwriters Laboratories Inc. (Northbrook, Ill.) have only just started work on verifying the capabilities of the connectors that vendors are touting as Category 5 products. ITT Datacomm (Santa Ana, Calif.), a cable installer, estimates the cost of going back and replacing connecting components that are not up to snuff at 10 to 20 percent of the initial installation price of a UTP scheme.

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