What’s Next For Fibre Optic Testing?

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With fibre optic installations becoming ever more pervasive and complex, testing procedures and equipment are following suit. Here, Nicholas Cole, EMEA marketing manager at AFL, talks NCN through what the future holds for the industry.

2016 was an exciting year for the telecommunications industry as it attempted to keep up with our insatiable desire for being connected anytime – anywhere. Cloud computing and mobility has fast become a norm in most developed societies, where smart devices can be seen glued to the hands of the many. This has caused an explosion of traffic which continues to drive up demand for network access, storage and bandwidth. These signs would suggest a bright future for fibre optics; those humble strands of glass that keep our connected world ‘clicking’.

Most networks, whether they appear wired or wireless, are supported via fibre optics which pervade ever closer to the network edge. This has fueled the development of new technologies operating faster and further towards the consumer. GPON is a good example of a successful Fibre-to-the-Home (FTTH) technology for residential use, whilst 100GBASE-LR4 has proven to be economical for delivering high speed business connections, with the ever popular 10GBASE-SR making its way to users within the enterprise. As current as they may seem, each is threatened with extinction as we welcome the next generation; XGS-PON, NG-PON2 and 25/40/100/400GB Ethernet.

So, what does this mean for testing? With increased demand and new technology comes intense pressure on network architecture and materials. New components such as splitters and multi-fibre connectors such as MPO have increased complexity whilst higher bandwidth has reduced loss and length limits. This has heightened the need for measurement as network performance is put under scrutiny. As a result, testing is fast emerging as value-add rather than added-cost, which presents test vendors with an opportunity to rethink what they can offer.

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Well designed processes that facilitate knowledge transfer are necessary for any successful organisation and it is no different for fibre optic cable testing. This is the first area where we should expect to see design improvements from test vendors in 2017. Under the banner workflow and data management, new products will become available that better connect people and testing within the overall network installation process. This should help planners drive out cable identification schemes, test methods and standards whilst enabling project managers to distribute information to field teams and monitor progress. Expect to see improvements come thick and fast through the use of smart devices, Apps and cloud servers.

Equipment that offers bidirectional measurements such as length and insertion loss will continue to gain momentum in enterprise, access and metro networks. Structured cabling owners will continue to expect flexibility from infrastructure as systems are upgraded and fibres are operated from one direction to the next. High density environments such as data centres should push demand for high speed testers and onboard certification to pre-defined limits to help technicians maintain standards. We may also see increased need for optical return loss measurements as networks are challenged with supporting a growing number of technologies.

The need for fibre optic inspection will continue to gain importance as operators begin to understand and find ways to measure the impact of contamination on network performance. Recent advancements in camera technology will improve connector visibility and sophisticated pass/fail algorithms will help educate users. These new tools should bring the need for cleaning into focus as dirt and bacteria will no longer be able to build up in the shadows. This should widen the appeal for cleaning products such as those that eliminate the pain of removing connectors causing further contamination.

Finally, the ever popular OTDR will continue finding new hands as it proves invaluable in a growing number of applications. Thanks to improvements in optical performance and resolution, short dead zones can decipher faults in spans that are tens of meters. This offers real benefit to those working inside data centres or installing drop cables in FTTH networks. What’s more, users will continue to see improvements in the way results are presented. Colourful maps displaying connectors, splices and splitters shaded red or green based on pre-defined limits will help guide novice users through the learning curve. Whilst additional tools such as built-in power meters, light sources and inspection scopes will assist the more experienced locate faults.

2017, therefore, promises another exciting year for fibre optic cable testing as our limitless desire for connectivity continues. In addition to these developments, it will be interesting to see what impact Wavelength Division Multiplexing (WDM) technologies have on access and enterprise networks. Could the introduction of Shortwave Wavelength Division Multiplexing (SWDM) and NG-PON2 trigger growth for optical channel analysers and checkers? This is certainly a question for the future as we continue to find new ways to push those humble strands of glass that light our industry.

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