Earlier this week I had a meeting with a Fiber Optics Installation & Maintenance team of Eiffage sixth largest engineering & construction firm in Europe. That was the first time since 2 years that I was face to face with outside plant technicians and managers. I have been surprised to hear the same complaints and requests than... before the Bubble. Nothing really changed in the I&M world since the crash, but the lack of freedom and the mandatory compliance to tight budgets. That's why i decided to post the following article, which I wrote back in... 2002 (again, sorry) for the CableTalk guys. Reading it after this meeting with Eiffage, I thought it is still valid, and a pretty good basis for those of you who want to create a business in the marvelous world of fiberoptics ;-)
Enjoy the ride !
Save (Maintenance) Time, Make (Fast ROI) Money
Over the last ten years, the intense competition in the telecommunications arena has brought about tremendous enhancements and progress to fiber optics technology, and vice-versa. To name but two examples, optical amplification was the first step towards all-optical networks to allow fast and efficient signal management, and WDM transmission created virtual fibers that enable simple bandwidth management. Every Yin has its Yang, however: when planning engineers were designing the most advanced optical networks ever, using every technological breakthrough available in order to provide the largest possible bandwidth on the longest links, their goal was to be the “fastest-to-light”. The fierce competition between the incumbent telecommunications operators and the then new entrants, meant that every player had to scramble to be the first to turn on their optical system, in order to be first to carry greater bandwidth to customers and thus set themselves apart from their competitors.
In doing so, the optical network designers of the 90s forgot one of the most very basic rules of telecommunications: ensure the integrity and reliability of the transmission media over the system’s life cycle. In other words, they ignored the physical limits of the optical fiber and its surroundings and thus the optical cable’s maintenance criteria. The inevitable result was high-count fiber cables without electronic documentation, unrecorded cable routes and, worst of all, maintenance contractors without any knowledge of fiber testing.
For the most part, a couple of years of network operation have been enough to make operators and carriers alike realize that they must quickly address the maintenance issue. The most efficient strategy consists of a three-fold action set: training, consulting, and outsourcing. The most important points to bear in mind when designing an optical network are therefore:
To train technicians and engineers for fiber troubleshooting,
To set up the appropriate optical network maintenance structure by consulting with experts,
To outsource the fiber-plant data acquisition and processing.
Hence, it is clear that, as is usual with the installation & maintenance space, testing is the operative word.
This paper will describe some of the solutions available to make optical cable maintenance an easier task and will explore a new source of profits for engineering and contracting companies.
Going back to the roots
In today’s post-bubble environment, the main issue of optical networks survivabilty is the human factor. With the extinction of numerous services providers and startup companies born after the 1996 Telecom Act, the dramatic downsizing effect at almost every equipment supplier, and the ongoing consolidation of the telecommunications landscape, the need for skilled personnel to maintain the fiber optic infrastructures is critical.
Due to the fierce competition, fast-changing technologies, and rapidly-evolving equipments, it is a given that the old model of in-house self-developped skills and expertise has been obsoleted over the last five years. Also, outsourcing has proved to be a time & cost-efficient strategy. Nevertheless, telecoms’s turmoil survivors will have to carefully look after their assets.
Long-established telco, CATV operator, local carrier or post-Telecom Act new entrant, they all have to properly manage their networks.
Thus, integrating in-house core competencies to better deal with all the different contractors who intervene along the network life-cycle from planning & design to operation & maintenance, is a must. This ‘Fiber Network’ team should consist of technicians and engineers with expertise in fiber-plant design and fiber testing, being able to detect and fix any single potential issue with the optical infrastructure.
Since almost twenty years, it is a common belief that fiber optic networks are maintenance free systems. Rodents, excavators, or heavy storms unquestionably tend to prove the contrary. Therefore, some easy-to-implement preventive maintenance routines are welcome.
First of all, the visual inspection of the entire fiber-plant should become a standard, to take place at least annually. The procedure is simple : it consists of a complete check-up of the cable route, from patch-panels and patch-cords to cable vaults and innerducts, looking after dangling cables, too tight bend radius, dust, water, damages caused by rodents or weather, missing labels, new construction closed to the cable-plant, etc. Since Twenty-first Century’s technology allows digital pictures to be easily shooted and stored for documentation, it would be a mistake not to include a cable-plant’s shots photo session in this visual inspection routine.
Then, the attenuation of the spare (‘dark’) fibers should be measured, with an optical loss test set (laser source and power meter). By comparison with the acceptance test’s records, any degradation of the fiber will be detected. Matching this optical test with the visual inspection provides a pretty good picture of the actual state of the fiber-plant.
On top of this annual inspection which is aimed to be “non-intrusive”, the verification of the in-use fibers is highly recommended. When able to re-route the traffic, the network operator should disconnect all lit fibers and proceed with a complete test of the link : get the actual OTDR signature and attenuation of those fibers, and compare the results with the records, e.g. at acceptance test stage, in order to determine if any degradation occured, for instance with the splices. Also, the output level of every optical transmission equipment must be checked with a power meter, to quantify any laser aging.
But even applying such kind of clean processes, Murphy’s law sometimes pops-up, because it’s immutable : the network failure happens, always on a friday afternoon when every one of the ‘Fiber Network’ team is driving back home for the week-end. No choice then : troubleshooting has to be performed by anyone who is still present, could be the admin assistant or a truck driver! This tricky problem - do a high-tech job by a non-tech person - can be resolved using a fiber break locator, which is a one-button operation OTDR-based tool featuring a simple user-interface that indicates clearly the fault location, could it be a damaged splice (e.g. increased loss due to water penetration) or a cable cut somewhere along the link. An unexpensive solution, the fiber break locator - a.k.a. FBL - should be considered as “the fiber extinguisher”. Each central office might be equiped with one unit, since the pricing ratio FBL vs OTDR is approximatively of 1 to 3 : for the same purchase price, the service provider can deploy 15 FBL units along its network, against ‘only’ 5 OTDRs. Thus, with its no-training-required concept, the fiber break locator appears as the tool of choice for all network operators willing to properly maintain their assets ‘safe’ at the lowest cost.
A kind of magic
To ensure fast but efficient troubleshooting, maintenance or repair operations, the key factor is the fiber-plant documentation: generally a binder, in paper and electronics format, which includes the network map or diagram, the detailled cable diagram with location of splices and termination panels, and of course all the measurements records, starting with the installation and commissioning tests.
Unfortunately, this documentation must be... maintained up-to-date : any change in the cable layout has to be captured, for instance the installation of new distribution frames in the central office, as well as any modification with the fibers themselves, such as a repair. The network operator should then put the highest priority on its optical infrastructure documentation, simply because it is used as the reference for all troubleshooting and maintenance activities. A solution is to take the opportunity of a visual inspection campaign to capture the records and put them in a convenient fast-to-retrieve electronic databank.
Assuming the service provider or carrier hosts a in-house core team who looks after maintenance, being also part of the network engineering, making sure the design of the optical infrastructure eases the maintenance procedures, the cable-plant documentation can easily be outsourced to any engineering or installation contractor of well-established reputation. Those technicians and engineers can also assist at any troubleshooting or maintenance tasks, e.g. the periodic verification of the active fibers.
To resolve the critical issue of the investment for test equipments, such of structure dramatically helps : the network operator ‘just’ need one fiber break locator and one optical power meter at each central office, while the contractor helds a more complete package that includes a full-blown OTDR, video-microscope, fusion splicer, etc.
As a consequence of the current consolidation in the telecommunications world, there is in the US and Europe an absolutely fabulous amount of fiber-kilometers already deployed but waiting for traffic. For sure, no one of the services providers and carriers still alive will be able to manage the maintenance entirely by themselves : downsized structures and limited budgets do not help there...
It is time for leading entrepreneurs to create new turnkey services, from 24/7 on-site support to preventive maintenance and network documentation.
Definitely the new Silk Road* of the begining of this new century.
* post-scriptum, added today Oct.20, 2006 : here, I was not refering to the one and only (to date) vaporware company ever created in the Optical Communications industry, but to the real ancient road that was leading to... China ;-)
Note : the only difference between 2002 and 2006 is the absolute need for more bandwidth today. So there is less dark fibers than before.