Wandering through the fibre-optic maze

In an age where latency and low-speed networks are as unacceptable and inappropriate as littering on Earth Day, it was only natural that the evolution of networking infrastructure would head into a realm where those dilemmas cease to exist.

Thus, the legacy, copper-based networks of yore are slowly being replaced with a newer, faster model – fibre. Industry analysts agree that fibre is the “wave of the future,” with its ability to deliver high speeds over greater distances than its copper predecessor. However, these same analysts caution that although having unlimited bandwidth is a carrier’s dream come true, fibre-optics is still a relatively new technology – one that comes with its own new, fresh set of problems to overcome.

By definition, fibre-optic cable is a technology that uses glass fibres to transmit data. A fibre-optic cable consists of a bundle of glass threads, each of which is capable of transmitting messages modulated onto light waves. Fibre-optic cables have much greater bandwidth, which allows them to carry more data, and are less susceptible to interference than traditional metal cables.

In With The New…

Although several analysts agree that fibre-based networks have yet to be perfected, they disagree on the main issues surrounding the technology. According to Iain Grant, managing director of Kanata, Ont.-based the Yankee Group in Canada, fibre is not necessarily best suited for all types of networks.

“Long-haul networks are all fibre,” Grant says. “If you are a long-haul carrier, you would have a super-efficient long-haul route and less efficient uses of other fibres adjacent to it. (Fibre) is very good at carrying information from city to city.”

In terms of metropolitan area networks (MANs), Grant says that fibre is not as effective. He says that with MANs, fibre must carry information in half-block increments. He adds that there are other transmission mechanisms that may be better suited for the MAN like satellite technology.

Grant notes that when talking about fibre-to-the-desktop, things get a little murky. He says that the average user is using more bandwidth than he used to, but it is nothing compared to the sum of all users. He adds that it is going to take a lot longer for individual use of bandwidth to go up.

“The thing we have noticed about consumption of bandwidth is that it is rising erratically,” Grant says. “This both delights and scares the carrier. It delights the carrier in that if they can find ways of serving you, they have got all sorts of new revenues that they can rub their hands with glee about. It concerns them in that the existing capacity they have in existing buildings is not capable of being extended easily. The answer of course is to put a much more capable facility in. That is why you see buildings being wired with OC-12 and OC-48 fibre capacity.”

Michael Sone, president of NBI/Michael Sone Associates in Toronto says that issues concerning fibre centre around building types and bandwidth requirements.

“Companies, I think, sometimes can get sweet-talked into putting fibre where it may not be needed,” Sone says, “but there are certainly instances where fibre is warranted.”

Grant agrees, saying that early adopters of fibre-based networks are in areas where information is a currency. Typically, these early adopters have been financial institutions and trading floors.

Will That Be Cash Or Charge?

Alex Ferworn, associate professor of the School of Computer Science at Ryerson University in Toronto, cautions businesses looking to make the switch from existing copper networks to fibre.

“It is expensive,” Ferworn says. “Companies have gone nearly bankrupt trying to put fibre-optic cable so close to the consumer or end-user.”

While Ferworn admits that fibre can be a lucrative investment, it is significantly more complex than other options.

“Any fool can twist together copper pairs,” he says, “but it requires machinery to actually do a good job with fibre. Splicing it all together, making sure it all connects tends to be more complex.”

However, the Yankee Group in Canada’s Grant says that cost of the material is beside the point. He says that cost is high due to the fact that, on the fibre-to-the-desktop side, equipment is not fibre-ready.

“None of the equipment on your desktop is ready for fibre,” Grant says. “You’d have to not only retrofit every building and every wiring room or harness room, but you’d have to upgrade every desktop. That is when you start talking real money. The fact that you have to replace all those terminals and telephones becomes an important part of the overall project. Will it happen? Absolutely. Will it happen in new construction? Certainly. Is it happening in key areas at present? Yes it is. The real need is argued best by looking at the non-fibre elements of the overall equation. Replacing all of those computers at once? It seems a little excessive.”

Implementation Woes

Frost & Sullivan’s Sam Bodur says that when it comes to deploying fibre, there are regulation concerns. Bodur, an industry analyst in the optical networking group for the Toronto-based research firm, says that the global regulation for fibre allows international exchange carriers (IXEs) into local markets. The regulation enables companies to build out networks that span across oceans, country borders and city borders. With the implementation of SONET, a North American standard for connecting fibre-optic transmission systems, communication carriers throughout the world can interconnect their existing digital carrier and fibre-optic systems. SONET establishes optical carrier levels from 51.8Mbps to 2.48Gbps.

Bodur says that there has been a great increase in data usage stemming from the explosion of the Internet and as a result, there is concern with providing enormous capacity starting with the backbone.

“The backbones are the most important, especially the backbone between Europe and North America,” he says. “That is the busiest backbone and we had copper cables under the ocean and they weren’t enough. Now fibre provides that sufficient capacity between North America and Europe. The backbone is the first place (to deploy fibre) because it needs the most capacity.”

The Yankee Group in Canada’s Grant says that aside from little kinks like glass breaking, deployment problems are typically labour-related.

“It is really just the labour of putting (fibre) into existing office buildings, which is going to really stop the widespread adoption of fibre,” he says. “You have the cost of fibre, but you also have the cost of all the end parts. People will still be wiring those buildings with Ethernet cable for some time to come.”

Making The Switch

Keeping in mind the cost and the implementation concerns of fibre-based networks, should businesses be looking to change over from copper to the “state-of-the-art” fibre solutions? The answer is not a simple yes or no, says Ryerson’s Ferworn.

“In the extreme short term, the answer is hello, we are in a recession. There is no choice to be made. You have no money so stop talking about it,” he says. “If you are thinking of deploying (a fibre network) and you are not a telco, why are you doing that? Get it from somebody who was stupid enough to deploy it, and buy it for less. In the long run, I’m sure that given enough bandwidth people will come up with really innovative technologies. There has to be something more compelling than just having the bandwidth available. Basically, video-on-demand is not going to do it.”

Grant says that in every company, there will be a place for fibre in information-intense areas. However, he suggests that corporations may choose to look at the needs of particular users and adopt fibre ad hoc as needed.

Frost & Sullivan’s Bodur stresses that businesses need to look at traffic volumes and really justify a need for fibre. Sone agrees saying that switching to fibre should only be an option if the existing copper solution no longer meets requirements.

“Don’t go looking for excuses for changing around your network,” Sone says.