Fiber optic network technology knowledge for investors, network owners / operators, consultants, and installers.
What is FTTH?
FTTH is an abbreviation for Fiber To The Home, which means using fiber optic cables for delivering digital communication signals from operators’ switching equipment to your home. However, the same fiber optic technology is used to connect your office or other business premises. In such case, it is sometimes called Fiber To The Business (FTTB). Accordingly, FTTx (Fiber To The ‘Whatever’) is a more general label, as it refers to the technology rather than what it is used for.
Why fiber optic technology?
In the fiber optic cables signals are transmitted at the speed of light, which is the fastest possible speed due to the laws of physics. Fiber optics is the only technology that does not suffer from reduced speed when numerous users compete for the same bandwidth – as is the case with both copper wire and radio transmitted wireless technologies.
Optic fibers are hair-thin strings of glass (or other transparent materials) that convey pulses of light. They are not worn, which results in long lifetime, typically more than 40 years. Due to the physics of light transmission, the signal can travel vast distances (approx. 100km) without losing strength or quality (clarity).
In contrast to electrical signals (copper wire) or radio signals (wireless) fiber optic signals are not sensitive to electromagnetic fields. This means that the light signal will remain unaffected by interference.
All this makes the technology very reliable and ideal for long-distance transmission. Accordingly, fiber optics are used for backbone and carrier networks.
Typically, fiber optic cables are placed in ducts, which in turn are buried in the ground, in culverts, or fixed in walls of buildings. This makes the cabling well protected, which adds to the reliability of fiber optic networks.
Fiber optic features summary:
- Safe and reliable
- Ultra-fast transmission without congestion
- Low maintenance
- Unattractive for thieves (as opposed to copper wire and radio equipment)
- Long-distance transmission
- Long lifetime
Fiber optic network vs wireless
Which technology is the best choice, a fiber optic network or wireless? These two fundamentally different technologies are often compared. From the user perspective, it is primarily about transfer speed and monthly fee, while for the network owner it is a matter of installation cost, operational reliability, expandability and upgradability to allow for future services, and total cost of ownership – simply put, the return on investment.
For the network owner, it is not a choice of the one or the other. Rather, hybrid networks may well be the optimal solution depending on what the network is planned for and the business case.
Is the fiber optic technology future-proof?
Yes. Irrespective of other technologies developing, for the foreseeable future, the optic fiber will remain the unparalleled technology for ultra-fast and reliable data transmission.
Investing in fiber optic networks
A successful FTTH project is a complex operation requiring excellent engineering skills, in-depth technical knowledge, practical hands-on skills, and lots of experience. Since a network owner rarely has this know-how, it is common to rely on engineering consultants and sub-contractors for projecting and installing a fiber optic network. As a result, decisions may not always be optimal for the investor, but instead, decisions may be biased by the preferences of consultants or sub-contractors.
Yet, there is some general advice for the investor to consider when budgeting and planning:
Installation cost is substantial since installing takes time and is labour-intense. Typically, the cost of materials is only a fraction of the labour cost. Accordingly, it is a good idea to keep labour cost down – if it is possible to do without affecting quality. A way to achieve this is to select methods and high-quality material that makes installation easier and faster. The slightly increased cost for materials and tools will pay off several times by the savings in labour cost.
Reducing total cost of ownership
When planning a network, it is common to budget for installation and then separately budget for operation, including service and maintenance. When budgeting for installation, this cost is divided into:
- Cost for materials (typically 15-20%)
- Cost for labour (typically 80-85%)
In bigger organisations, e.g., with a dedicated purchasing department, it is a natural routine to focus on price for materials. This does not require any specific knowledge from the purchaser, other than verifying that materials are according to the current technical specification. To the non-expert, labour cost is unquestionable since he cannot judge upon what is really the minimum to achieve good enough quality.
However, materials feature and labour usage for installation are closely interrelated. Accordingly, investing in a slightly more expensive system solution could pay off immensely due to the much faster and smoother installation process. Investing one extra Euro in materials may give up to 800% in return by the substantial time and labour savings.
The most common mistake when purchasing is to not consider the cost for materials and labour as one inseparable cost for installation.
“The costs for materials and labour should be considered as inseparable – their interdependence is the basis for effectively reducing installation cost.”
Choosing a high-quality easy-to-install system solution will substantially lower the total cost of ownership – not only by the installation but also when maintaining and upgrading the network during its entire lifetime.
Planning an FTTH network
In a long-term perspective, it's easy to believe that the relatively short planning and network implementation phase will have a minor impact on ROI and total cost of ownership. However, delays and quality problems that result from pitfalls that could easily have been avoided can affect profitability over time. Accordingly, planning an FTTH network is not just about planning the technical implementation. Instead, it is about securing the business plan by appropriate planning and quality assurance.
“Proper planning of an FTTH network is securing the network owner's business plan.”
Quality in execution is vital
Any FTTH project is based on a business case with financial targets, network performance requirements, and a target for market share. Reaching the market share target is, in turn, strictly dependent on roll-out speed and project closing according to the time plan.
To achieve all these targets, it takes a comprehensive view and quality assurance – from procurement to project closing and handing over to operating the network.
However, quality is not a dedicated KPI. Instead, quality in execution is the fundamental prerequisite for business goal achievement.
Why FTTH project implementations fail
Unfortunately, many FTTH implementation projects are regarded from a short perspective, i.e. having the network in place as soon as possible. As a consequence, the essential long-term TCO perspective is disregarded. In practice, project delays and quality issues are remarkably common. The reasons for failure are often found in the fact that network owners and contractors are eager to start, and consequently do not spend time on establishing the optimal ways of working.
Another common reason for quality issues and delays is the failure to verify installers' experience and skills to handle the challenges that may arise during the building phase.
How to avoid FTTH project implementation failure
To avoid unnecessary cost and increased lead times, adequate planning is vital. At the early stage of a project, in the procurement phase, few people are involved, and little cost is spent. Putting effort into establishing the project ways of working here, will pay off considerably by reducing the risk of failure in the highly active building phase.
Low-risk approach best practice
- Establish quality assured ways of working early in the project life cycle
- Test and evaluate on a small scale
- Make sure that the quality assured ways of working are known, understood and followed by all resources in the project
- Include a plan for deviation management
- Verify the documented skills and experience of everyone involved
“Planning is key to successful project implementation.”
Network design is key to a low total cost of ownership
Designing a fiber optic network is a truly challenging task where the designer needs to consider many different input conditions and perform many levels of optimization along the way. If properly designed, the network will provide long-term reliable operation. However, it's not only about operating performance. The optimal network should have low installation and materials cost. It should be flexible and provide efficient upgrade and expansion possibilities. Further, it should be easy and cost-efficient to maintain while providing a long network life – typically decades of operation. And, all of this is the result of proper design.
“It's like designing a car: All functional and operational features must be expertly planned for and decided on the drawing table. It's in real-life long-term operation a good design is distinguished from a bad one.”
What is network design in practice?
Basically it is a set of deliverables such as area drawings, where the physical infrastructure such as cabinets, ducts and fiber cables is shown and schematic drawings over the duct and fiber network that will allow the installers to actually perform the installation and make the fiber network a reality.
Air-blown or traditional cabling?
The fast air-blown technology
Blown fiber systems offer a variety of advantages over traditional fiber systems, including reduced material and installation costs, fewer fiber connection points, simplified repair and maintenance, and a migration path for future applications.
There are two types of blown fiber systems depending on the segment of the network. In the first, the feeder (or distribution) portions of the network utilize air blown microcables, typically from 12 to 432 fibers. In the second, for the access (i.e., last mile) fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) segment, air blown fiber “units” are utilized. These are typically one to 12 fiber units. These systems are installed in many environments, including FTTH, hospitality, health care and enterprise campuses.
Are traditional cabling methods obsolete?
In comparison to air-blown technology, the traditional method of pulling cables may seem ineffective. However, there are situations when a traditional method is well worth considering. For example, in networks with no or few branches, such as trunk networks, the benefits with micro pipes and splice-free blown fiber installation gets less obvious.
Fiber optic network installation
Fiber optic installation is partly physical work making way for the ducts in the ground and buildings. But partly also, handling, fusion splicing, and connecting the fiber optic cables – a delicate precision work which requires excellent skills and the utmost care.
Purchase of installation projects
Cabling is often carried out in dense urban areas, and accordingly, unexpected interruptions in operations can have major consequences. To optimise the installation process, it is crucial to secure material supply and have staff with the proper skills in place at the right time.
An installation project is a complex logistics operation. To be successful, all included sub-process must run smoothly. The right materials and tools must be supplied in time and place. The installing crew must have the proper skills, experience and certifications to do a quality secured job in a time-efficient manner.
Altogether, successfully running such a complex operation requires true know-how. A good installer gains know-how by fundamental theoretical knowledge together with vast practical experience. Over time – after numerous installation projects – he learns how to deal with the unexpected and how to overcome obstacles in practice. This is why an experienced and well-reputed installer is vital to fiber optic network installation – and this is why quality assurance in FTTH procurement is vital for reaching long-term business goals.
Accordingly, when purchasing, it is crucial to verify the installer’s competence and track-record. Contracting an installer without proper know-how and experience adds risk to the project and may lead to delays and substantial cost increase.
“Contracting an installer without proper know-how and experience adds risk to the project.”
But, even an experienced installing crew may encounter situations that require particular expertise. This is why proper field support is fundamental. However, to be fully effective, such field support must be available and in place at very short notice.
Products for fiber optic networks
A fiber optic network is like a giant puzzle and not two are identical. Depending on application, performance, cost, or topographical challenges, different products characteristics are prioritized. Accordingly, products are designed with specific features for their intended use.
For example, optic fiber cables can be designed and optimized for:
- Aerial installation – The cables (or ducts) are exposed to wind load, UV light and possible ice load. Special products that can handle these loads and environmental conditions are required.
- Ground installation – The fiber cables must be strong enough to be buried directly in the ground or, if duct systems are used, be able to be air-blown or water jetted long distances.
- Underwater installation – Here, special submarine cables are used. To protect the fibers from water and potentially high pressure a hermetical metal tube is used together with different steel armoring options.
- Indoor installation – There are normally some kind of fire performance requirements to consider. This is related to fire safety in residential buildings, public buildings etc. which requires fiber cables with special materials that limit fire spread and harmful smoke in case of fire.