I continually hear firmly stated opinions from various industry gurus and the stock pickers at investment houses that there is an overabundance of fiber-optic cable currently installed across the United States.
Now, most doctors would agree that we all need more fiber in our everyday diet, but we need only one small strand of optical fiber 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 fiber-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 fiber along all of 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 fiber in the ground to sell to the other players. Backhoe time is expensive, and installing extra fibers during each dig could delay the need to visit city hall to request new permits to plow up the streets?again. (It can cost $250,000 to $1 million per mile to trench, lay conduit and pull fibers 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 fiber between most of the major communications routes in this country, you’ll find that the existing fiber is mostly lit (industry jargon for operating), and observers say that we’ll likely 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 fiber,” 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 fibers. Can we really claim to have excessive fiber 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 fiber capacity will explode once again. At that point, the few fibers left unlit?at least those that will still work with current hardware?will become vital 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 fiber 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 fiber gluts and move on. The real questions are: How do we deliver current and future fiber 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, then the rate of consumption will result in not a glut but a shortage.
So let’s stop criticizing the carriers for their fiber-burying enthusiasm. They were merely guilty of looking ahead with some optimism. And fiber’s time will arrive. Let’s just keep our fingers crossed that the fibers under our feet will be useable when we need them.