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The fibre-glut myth

The fibre-glut myth

There may be lots of glass under US streets — but a lot may not really be enough. We should be asking the same questions about New Zealand’s fibre networks

I continually hear firmly stated opinions from various industry gurus and the stock pickers at investment houses that there is an overabundance of fibre-optic cable currently installed across the US.

Now, most doctors would agree that we all need more fibre in our everyday diet, but we need only one small strand of optical fibre to the door of our office or home. If we really have a so-called glut, then why don’t we — as potential customers for fibre-based communications services — see it yet? Why are we still doing everything over copper? The answer: because there really isn’t a glut.

Here’s the situation. A couple of years ago telecommunications carriers were installing extra fibre along all their routes. Local telephone companies installed extra strands in metropolitan areas as a hedge against future shortages.

Long-distance companies tried to prepare for the much-anticipated internet explosion. And third-party companies wanted to make sure that they had sufficient fibre in the ground to sell to the other players. Backhoe time is expensive, and installing extra fibres during each dig could delay the need to visit city hall to request new permits to plough up the streets — again. (It can cost $US250,000 to $US1 million per mile to trench, lay conduit and pull fibres along many of the heavily trafficked routes.)

That is exactly what many of the companies did, and now they are being chastised for their foresight. And if you look at the installed base of fibre between most of the major communications routes in the US, you’ll find that the existing fibre is mostly lit (industry jargon for operating), and observers say that we’ll probably run out of capacity in the next 12 to 18 months.

But there’s another interesting fact to consider. Much of the unlit, or “dark fibre”, out there (and some of it does exist) may already be obsolete. Changes in technology, such as innovations in lasers, have leapt beyond the capabilities of some currently installed fibres. Can we really claim to have excessive fibre if the spares lying underground cannot be lit with the latest technologies?

Someday, when the economy bounces back and the internet becomes what it is truly intended to be — a media-rich, converged network that offers streaming and real-time protocols with high quality and rapid delivery — the demand for fibre capacity will explode once again. At that point, the few fibres left unlit — at least those that will still work with current hardware — will become essential in sustaining the next wave of growth.

Additionally, the use of on-demand bandwidth in the form of “designer wavelengths” has to mature and become commercially available for the carriers to uphold the technology’s promise. Without a doubt, this new offering of designer bandwidth will consume whatever fibre we still have held in reserve.

The real problem is not whether we have the capacity necessary for the far future — we don’t. So we need to stop talking about fibre gluts and move on. The real questions are: how do we deliver current and future fibre to the door; and what do we charge for it?

Customers want bandwidth that is better, faster and cheaper. When the carriers finally deliver that bandwidth and the necessary equipment becomes affordable, the rate of consumption will result in not a glut but a shortage.

So let’s stop criticising the carriers for their fibre-burying enthusiasm. They were merely guilty of looking ahead with some optimism. And fibre’s time will arrive. Let’s just keep our fingers crossed that the fibres under our feet will be useable when we need them.

Bud Bates is president of TCIC in Phoenix and author of books on wireless broadband telecommunications and GPRS. He can be reached at bud@tcic.com.

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