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What are the dilemmas in copper cables moving out to let fiber in?

February 20, 2018

Telecommunications copper cables mainly belong to the group of outside plat cables (aerial cables, duct/buried cables, last link wire cables) and to the group of central office cables, which serve for signal transmission within buildings. Another producer describes their copper cables per usage, as such: “conventional telephone cables, RF carrier high frequency cables and xDSL cables, automation and control cables, signaling cables and special railway signaling cables, telephone switchboard cables.”

Specialized manufacturers improved copper cable construction over time, yet fiber-optic cables gained ground over copper cables, since their efficiency in data transmission is considerably higher. In 2012 the Japanese from NTT showcased a speed of one pentabit per second via a special fiber that “packed 12 cores into a single strand”, marking the beginning of a new era. Telecommunications companies re-oriented versus fiber-optic wiring since it is considerably more efficient.

August 2016 saw the FCC urging carriers to upgrade their networks to fiber to the detriment of copper cables, now deemed outdated. Let’s see what would be the benefits and the pitfalls in this process, for both customers and carriers.

Fiber cable benefits and disadvantages

This type of cables comprisessingle-mode, multi-mode or mixed cables, indoor cables (FR LSZH), underground ducting or direct burial cables, aerial installation cables ADSS or shape” and full dielectric cables or steel reinforcement (CSTA or SWA).

Of course, fiber being a step ahead in infrastructure for all involved in telecommunications services, it brings a suite of advantages, such as:

  • Better data transmission speeds (as we have seen above);
  • Increased bandwidth potential;
  • Cost-saving infrastructure;
  • Increased efficiency;
  • Less mandatory maintenance, less incidents due to cables being sensitive to moisture or temperature fluctuations;
  • Smaller size and weight of the cables, which makes them take up less space;
  • Longer lifetime expectancy;
  • The potential to fully support future Telco services without failing.

On the other hand, fiber-optic cables have one major fault that generated additional FCC regulations – it is incapable to withstand power outages, unlike the traditional landline.

Where copper-based phones used central office electricity in the event of an outage, fiber-based phones are dead as soon as the power goes out locally. Individual backup systems have to be set up in order to provide fiber-cable telecommunications service a minimum of functionality during outages. Mind you, this is not feasible for the cases where clients replace the old landline with wireless-based telecommunications, since the networks might also go out, leaving no signal available for the phone users. During emergencies the telephone communications are compromised. This issue generated a lot of concern and debates, as well as opposition to complete fiber adoption in some areas; Verizon reacted by calling the fiber-cable opponents in South Jersey “outdated”.

Therefore, the FCC intervened with a set of regulations destined to protect customers against the effects of copper retirement. The telecommunications companies whose tasks include making the switch have been trying to elude some of the spending on their side, since it may be cost-effective to make the transition to fiber, but it is surely a burden to provide alternative solutions for permanent connectivity to all the transitioning clients.

Another disadvantage is related not so much to the fiber-cable itself, but rather to the moment of its full-on implementation. Regions where maintaining copper is not economical, and nor is implementing fiber-optic cable risk to remain uncovered once copper cables wear out, a thing companies have been accused to intentionally allow/encourage.

The copper-to-fiber transition has also raised monopoly issues, since wireless facilities (the solution pushed in areas where cost-efficiency for new fiber is reduced), are not a must share element for giant Telco companies, therefore smaller entities find themselves excluded, unless they pay fees some of these companies claim they cannot afford.

Ethernet over copper (EoC) is envisaged (as an alternative to unfeasible fiber networks in less populated areas), by Sprint and Windstream, but the potential Verizon and AT&T cooperation in this field might “choke off enterprise business solution competition nationwide”.

Copper cables, fiber-optic and wireless

Since regulations seem to leave a certain liberty of choice regarding which type of cables the telecommunications companies go with (while nevertheless moving on towards the most progressive available solution), a differentiated analysis on what is best for each area would be only practical and fair to the customers.

Hybrid cables also exist, yet replacing the old copper infrastructure with hybrid-based networks might prove too costly. In rural or remote areas, the already existing copper cables and their maintenance costs could in fact be the most economical way to go, when taking into consideration the need of those customers to be able to always connect to emergency services, when necessary, as well as their lack of viable alternatives.

Meanwhile, for urban, modernized and equally overpopulated areas, the most sustainable solutions are fiber-optic and wireless-based services, which are open for whatever the technology of the future might bring in terms of innovation and increased data traffic – at least for the next 4 to 9 years.

Balancing these extremes, while adding more in-between solutions that satisfy both customers as well as Telco companies and their sub-contractors, should be a quite ample activity for the near to medium future – and hopefully a successful one.