Will plastic ever graduate?

Will plastic ever graduate?

Stephen M. Hardy

Editor in Chief

stephenh@pennwell.com

There`s a well-known scene from the "The Graduate," in which Dustin Hoffman, fresh from college and uncertain about what he wants to do with his life, is accosted at a party in his parents` home by a well-meaning friend of the family. Obviously a member of the soulless "over-30" generation, this icon of the establishment wraps a paternal arm around Dustin`s shoulders and intones, "One word: plastics."

At the recent OFC `97 conference, several of Dustin`s generational peers gathered within the Plastic Optical Fiber Pavilion to prove the validity of that proclamation for the future of premises wiring. Unlike its status in the movie, however, plastic remains well outside the mindset of the establishment when it comes to the premises. Thus, the purveyors of plastic fiber were looking at OFC for more than just an opportunity to show their wares--they were looking for a little respect.

This is not to say that plastic optical fiber has no friends. The pavilion sported an international roster of occupants, including Hewlett-Packard, Mitsubishi, California Eastern Labs, and Honeywell, rubbing shoulders with such plastic-fiber specialists as Boston Optical Fiber. Elsewhere on the show floor, companies such as AMP and Panduit offered plastic optical-fiber products alongside their glass-based devices. All of these companies, as well as their confreres not mentioned here, confidently said that plastic`s evolution into the premises from its traditional applications on the factory floor or within certain light fixtures was just around the corner. Plastic, they explained, beats copper for many of the same reasons that glass does: higher speeds, wider bandwidth, and resistance to electromagnetic interference. Yet it provides these benefits at an overall price that glass fiber can`t match and in a packaging much easier to terminate.

"And see, it really works," they exclaimed, pointing to their on-site demonstrations. For example, the High Speed Plastic Network Consortium showed how graded- and step-index plastic fiber could be used in a local area network to create an "Office in the Sky" aboard a commercial airliner. Elsewhere in the consortium`s booth, a plastic network provided Fast Ethernet videoconferencing.

It really did seem to work. So I was surprised to discover that these feats of plastic derring-do elicited little more than a wide yawn from many points on the show floor. Representatives from Corning said they`d compete with plastic if they had to--but said it in a way that strongly implied such competition won`t be necessary. Market watchers at several booths said that plastic had almost no future in the office.

Part of the problem appears to be the same old why-try-something-new mentality that glass itself faced not so long ago when it first competed against copper. "Who`s going to stick his neck out and risk his career by choosing to install an unproven technology?" one observer asked. Such a bold move would appear particularly foolhardy, some said, when you consider that few standards and specifications exist for plastic fiber in the premises. And, they added, you should know that in addition to sharing low overall cost with copper, plastic also suffers from similar distance limitations at high speeds, on the order of 50 meters.

These last points pose the real obstacles to plastic deployment. Researchers are working to extend the effective range of plastic fibers, but a breakthrough to the distances now served by glass still appears well in the future. Thus, as the supporters of plastic work standards bodies and industry groups such as the Telecommunications Industry Association and the ATM Forum, they find themselves in the uneasy position of siding with their copper competitors against the efforts of glass-fiber manufacturers to set longer distances as premises wiring benchmarks.

The result is potential confusion in the user community about plastic fiber and its attributes. It`s not exactly glass and it`s not exactly copper--so what is it? Even the companies now marketing plastic fiber have a hard time keeping their stories straight. "We`re not trying to compete with glass," asserted one plastic-fiber manufacturer in the High Speed Plastic Network booth. "We compete with copper in the last 100 meters." He made this statement as he sat beneath a placard trumpeting plastic as "The Technology That Shatters Glass."

Plastic appears to have the potential to meet at least some premises wiring requirements. How many applications and how soon it proves useful--if at all--will depend largely on its proponents` success in overcoming its present technical and perceptional hurdles. Like Dustin Hoffman`s character in "The Graduate," plastic fiber must grow up--in a hurry. q

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