Government market stumps for ABF

The government market has provided an alternative customer base for several optical component and system suppliers. Such customers also appear to have taken up the banner for air-blown fiber (ABF), if the experiences of Bell Canada Enterprises (BCE—Montreal) are any indication.

BCE provides a wide range of communications products and services to residential and business customers. Wiring and cabling services for large enterprises fall within the company's scope. According to Kevin Black, a project manager at BCE, a combination of security concerns and a desire for flexibility has boosted the popularity of ABF for government applications. In the United States, the Pentagon and other military users have adopted the technology. In Canada, says Black, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and several correctional facilities have joined other government organizations in choosing air-blown infrastructure.

"They were the ones who actually brought this to our attention," says Black of his federal customers. While fiber generally is considered more secure than copper (primarily because it is more impervious to signal interception), customers interested in maximum security see ABF as even more advantageous because of the way it is installed. As reported previously in Lightwave (most recently in our July 2003 issue, page 29), installation involves two steps: installing tubes as conduit, then "blowing" fiber through the tubes using compressed air at speeds as high as 150 ft per minute. (Some companies prefer using cable rather than bare fiber; BCE uses the FutureFlex ABF system from Sumitomo Electric Lightwave.)

"It's very secure, air-blown fiber, because of the fact that if you have restricted access, which we have a lot of up here for government since 9/11, you only have to breach that security once while you install the tube system," Black explains. "And then for future upgrades, you don't have to have that same construction crew rolling through your campus network, inside your buildings, etc. You're now limited to two technicians, one on either end, blowing the fiber through. And they're usually in telecom rooms, so they're very secure. [Customers at secure facilities] don't see a group of six or eight people—just two guys that they see a lot more of."

ABF also reduces the number of splices in the network. For example, fire codes require different ratings for riser cables than plenum or outdoor cable. Using conventional optical cable, installers likely would need to splice plenum and riser cable, plus install more patch cords and connectors, in a campus network. Besides the performance issues involved in introducing such points of loss into the network, splices and other connection points provide opportunities for signal interception.

Conversely, BCE uses differently rated tubes to meet fire code and similar requirements, then blows the same fiber through all the tubes. Because the installer doesn't have to change cabling when moving from indoor to outdoor or from vertical to horizontal, fewer splices are necessary—and fewer potential signal interception points are introduced.

Black says BCE has installed between $3 million and $4 million worth of air-blown optical infrastructure over the last three years, with government and military customers representing the majority of that business. However, Black believes the technology deserves broader application. "That's kind of our goal moving forward, to move it into more of the enterprises, like the universities—anywhere they have a campus-type environment," he says. "And a lot of these campus-type environments up here in Canada, because of the nature of the weather, are fed via steam tunnels—perfect pathways for an air-blown fiber system."

But while government and military users are willing to pay an initial installation premium for the security air-blown infrastructure provides, civilian users have different priorities. For them, the more important tradeoff may be initial cost versus future flexibility. "Usually I use as a rule of thumb, if you have to pull another fiber cable back into the same building, then you're probably at the break even point," Black says. "If you look at a campus environment where there's a lot of potential for moves and there's a lot of potential for growth, it makes sense to put in air-blown fiber, even at the extra cost."

As more companies and institutions attempt to support high-bandwidth services on their networks, Black foresees a shift away from 62.5-µm multimode fiber to laser-enhanced 50-µm multimode or singlemode fiber. He believes some of these companies will want to plan now for such upgrades—and an ABF infrastructure would fulfill this requirement.

Of course, some users know exactly what their requirements will be for the foreseeable future, and BCE has no plans to retire its conventional optical cabling services. But the addition of air-blown fiber to his arsenal enables Black to more adequately meet the needs of a wide variety of customers.

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