Copper to Fiber Transformation
Why carriers are converting twisted pair copper to fiber optic connections.
By: John Shepler
Alchemists of the ancient world spent centuries searching for the philosopher’s stone. This is a legendary substance that could turn lead into gold. They never found it. Today’s network carriers may well have found a modern equivalent to the philosopher’s stone. It’s the near magic of converting copper into fiber.
Telecom service providers aren’t really after a chemical process to make them rich. They have something even more lucrative. Their version of transmutation involves the wholesale replacement of century old twisted pair copper wiring with the latest in multiple strand fiber optic cabling.
There are untold tons of copper in the ground. Not just the ore, mind you. The copper that makes money for carriers is the refined variety that is drawn into small diameter wire and coated with colored plastic for insulation. The wires are then joined into pairs so a complete circuit can be formed. They are twisted into a spiral to cancel out interfering signals from other pairs and outside influences such as AC power cabling. Collections of twisted pairs are bundled into cables called binders and then buried or flown overhead on utility poles.
The installed copper is referred to as an asset by the companies that own it. These are almost always the ILECs or Incumbent local Exchange Carriers. They are the legacy of the old Bell System that developed the technology and installed the infrastructure in the first place. Copper assets have been the basis of telecom profits for more than a century. So, why turn your back on this valuable resource?
Twilight of Copper Connections
Copper’s glory days are in the past. For more than a dozen decades, copper wires carried most voice and data signals. Data came first, in the form of the telegraph. Voice soon followed with the invention of Bell’s telephone. Even television used copper for signal transport, although using a different type of cable called coax. It’s still the most popular way to connect cable television to homes and businesses. What’s replacing copper? Fiber.
Fiber optic bundles long ago replaced copper cables as undersea cables. They also form the core of nationwide data networks and long distance telephone service. What’s left is the arduous job of abandoning or pulling out all that old copper still used locally and replacing it with the latest in high efficiency fiber optics.
Fiber Issues and Opportunities
Make no mistake, converting copper to fiber is an expensive process. Verizon has been a leader in FTTH (Fiber to the Home) using passive fiber optic cables to replace old telephone wires. Once installed, the fiber becomes the telecom connection to that location and the copper is decommissioned. Despite the advantages of fiber over copper, this conversion process has not spread like wildfire across the country. It costs a lot to install the new fiber and network interface boxes.
The buildout cost is becoming less of an issue all the time. This is especially true for the copper installations in business locations. Businesses are willing to spend a lot more in monthly lease fees for their bandwidth connections than consumers. They are also faced with the new reality that high bandwidth is critical for the growth of their businesses.
Why the Transformation?
Business demand is one major impetus in the transformation of copper to fiber MAN and WAN connections. Bandwidth demands are skyrocketing and copper is limited in how much it can transport. T1 lines at 1.5 Mbps and DS3 connections at 45 Mbps are most popular legacy telecom services. DS3 itself depends on fiber optic transmission to the curb, where the final run into the building is accomplished with coaxial copper. T1 uses those twisted pairs originally installed for telephone service. It was specifically designed to be compatible. The good news is that T1 is almost universally available. The bad news is that it no longer has the bandwidth to support modern business processes. A couple of decades ago 1.5 Mbps was all you needed even in larger companies. Now that’s considered entry level at best.
Copper Still Has Life Left
A couple of technical advances are extending the life of the installed copper assets. One is T1 line bonding. You can connect two T1 lines so they act like one line with twice the capacity. Add more lines and multiply the bandwidth. The practical limit to this is 10 or 12 Mbps. Another technology is called Ethernet over Copper (EoC). This uses the same twisted pair copper as T1 but with a different modulation scheme that offers higher bandwidths but distance sensitivity. You can easily get 10 to 50 Mbps, but need to be fairly close to the telco CO for higher bandwidths.
What’s fiber got to offer? How about bandwidths from 10 Mbps to 10 Gbps? Cloud computing, video, big data and content distribution need those higher bandwidths that only fiber can easily provide. This requirement is only going to increase in the future. This is why Verizon recently took advantage of the “opportunity” to replace their old copper with fiber in lower Manhattan following the water damage from Hurricane Sandy. It future-proofs their network while opening up a market for higher priced higher bandwidth services.
Is your business being stymied by too low bandwidth? Check availability of Ethernet over Copper and Fiber Optic services for your business location. You may be surprised by the increased availability and lower cost of higher bandwidth metro and WAN services.
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