Long-haul cable market to continue its hibernation

Dec. 1, 2004

While the access and premises markets should continue to thaw in 2005, vendors and forecasters expect winter temperatures will remain in place over the long-haul (LH) cabling landscape next year-and probably even longer. No major new deployments are on the horizon, particularly now that China has completed most of its build-out. That leaves cabling companies fighting for scraps while waiting for the current ice age to pass.

Speaking at the 2004 Newport Conference on Fiberoptics Markets in October, Patrick Fay of KMI Research noted that while the U.S. long-distance market will experience a 37% compound annual growth rate between 2003 and 2009, the next few years will continue to challenge fiber and cable vendors. He later explained that while the 37% sounds promising, that apparently strong rate results more from a very low starting point in ’03 than from expectations of large long-distance construction programs.

KMI estimates that 150,000 km of cabled fiber was installed in the United States last year-less than 2% of the 9.8 million fiber-km installed during the peak year of 2000. The growth expected in the next few years will consist of some new intercity routes rather than nationwide programs. Some of the new routes may include upgrades or overlays of older cable routes-AT&T, MCI, and Sprint have routes dating back to the mid-1980s, for example.

The outlook appears even worse internationally, where LH applications will barely end up on the plus side over the next five years. As in the U.S., there will be a smaller number of new long-distance construction projects. Most of this activity will occur in developing markets where there has been less previous activity.

The view from the vendor side isn’t any better. “We know of about 1,500-2,000 miles of actual projects that are going to be either new long-haul or troubled long-haul,” says Greg Williams, director of marketing at Draka Comteq USA (Claremont, NC), of the U.S. market in 2005. “If we’ve got visibility of about 2,000 miles of projects right now, I would say the market next year is probably not going to be more than 5,000-6,000 miles.”

Joel Orban, product-line manager of high-data-rate products and new products for Corning (Corning, NY), says the U.S. LH fiber and cable market will be “flat” next year. “Primarily, we saw significant builds in North America, Western Europe, and China in the early 2000 time frame, and we expect those carriers will continue to utilize the fiber that they deployed, and they’ve been doing so over the past few years,” Orban explains.

The same holds true outside the U.S. “There are areas that represent small opportunities where long-haul infrastructure is required,” Orban adds. “I’d characterize it as areas like Eastern Europe, Northern Africa, and to some extent Russia.”

Williams believes that carriers in the U.S. have focused on enhancing their current infrastructure, rather than expanding it. “We know the struggles that AT&T and MCI and the long-distance carriers are having,” he says. “We’ve had some of the executives of those long-haul companies just say they’ve got to take their money and try to invest in voice over IP technology, and the fiber industry is just going to have to suffer through the downturn until they get that figured out.”

Most LH deployments in the North America will therefore result from maintenance requirements, both Williams and Orban believe. Williams says at least half will entail upgrading cabling that can’t support 10-Gbit/sec transmission. He also reports that his company has received calls from network operators whose 1980s-era cabling is starting to experience delamination of the coating. Orban, however, says that Corning has received no reports from their customers about such problems.

The market may be sleeping, but the fiber and cabling companies remain awake in the labs, readying new products for when demand rebounds. Williams highlights the recently ratified ITU-T G.656 Recommendation for nonzero dispersion-shifted fiber. Building on the previous G.655 specifications (which themselves had been revised twice), G.656 provides an expanded window of operation. G.656 provides specifications for 1460-1625 nm, whereas G.655 covered 1565-1625 nm. The new specifications also feature different minimum and maximum chromatic dispersion coefficients. G.655 called for a minimum Dmin of 1 psec/nm•km and a maximum Dmax of 10 psec/nm•km; the figures for G.656 are 2 and 14 psec/nm•km, respectively. While G.655 called out both positive and negative dispersion, G.656 focuses solely on positive.

Draka Comteq offers such a fiber under the TeraLight name, as does OFS under the TrueWave Reach brand. Williams says use of the G.656 fiber will enable carriers to minimize their reliance on repeaters to extend reach. According to Draka Comteq’s Jim Ryan, the dispersion coefficients in G.656 result in a “medium” level of dispersion at 1550 nm. This level of dispersion helps to minimize cross-channel impairments, thus helping reach.

Orban, whose company doesn’t produce G.656 fiber, is not sure the new specification offers significant performance improvements versus G.655 Table C in the C- and L-bands used most frequently by carriers today. He believes the only major difference between G.656 and G.655 is extending performance into the S-band-currently a dubious benefit, in his mind.

“From discussions with our customers and what we’re seeing in the marketplace, really there’s not a lot of interest in the S-band for additional capacity,” Orban says. “What they’re looking for is 10G C-band today with an eye toward 40G in the future, once the economics are right. And then maybe we’ll move to the L-band if we need additional capacity.”

Orban believes a more important advance will be the march of low water peak capabilities from the metro and access spaces into the LH arena. “If you drive to a lower 1383-[nm] attenuation, a lower water peak attenuation, one of the benefits is you get a lower 14xx-[nm] attenuation,” he notes. “And that’s the location where you see Raman amplification. And if you have a lower 14xx attenuation, it increases the Raman efficiency, because the efficiency is a function of the attenuation at the pump wavelength.” The increased Raman efficiency will enable the use of lower-cost pump lasers, thus reducing overall systems cost, he says. Corning doesn’t offer such a fiber yet, but Orban says one is on the product development roadmap.

Looking forward, Orban does see some signs of life in the undersea market. While stressing that the market won’t be anywhere close to the levels of the late 1990s, he says 2005 should prove more active than 2004.

“What we’re seeing today is increased interest,” he relates. “There are publicly announced projects like SEA-ME-WE-4, which is happening this year. The folks at Reliance who acquired FLAG Telecom are talking about a project that’s been announced publicly called Falcon.”

Williams likewise says there are signs of life on the horizon-as distant as that horizon may be. He says several companies are developing G.656 fiber, which is an indication they believe there will be a market for it. He also thinks carriers will have their voice over IP plans in place and under implementation by the end of 2005. “I have hope for the long-haul market 18-36 months out,” he concludes.

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