Cable guys

Fibre is vital for the future of communications, but its deployment presents some major challenges to operators.

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By  George Bevir Published  April 18, 2009

Fibre is vital for the future of communications, but its deployment presents some major challenges to operators.

Putting cable into the ground can be an expensive process, but as the amount of data that is consumed increases, the demand for greater capacity grows, and backbone connections ultimately demand cable that can carry more traffic across long distances and, more recently, to people's homes with FTTX schemes.

But with large scale projects some large scale problems can be encountered. Mountains of red tape, endless bureaucracy and obstacles in gaining permission to dig trenches to install cable can be a major concern for operators and the installers working on their behalf. One way that such a problem can be overcome is for infrastructure projects to have cable capacity built in to them, so that freshly laid roads and paths to do not have to be dug up by each utility provider.

Pulling cable is very labour intensive and doesn’t do the cable any good. And, installers can only do 200-300 metres between manhole covers. - John Davies, CBS.

A lack of involvement in large-scale projects that inevitably requires the installation of telecoms equipment is a source of irritation for cabling company R&M's technical director for the Middle East and Africa, Andrew Sedman.

"We're always last to be called in, but it always needs to be done first," he says. "And that's always one of the hardships for a project manager of a cable installing company. Typically they are always left to last and then somehow have to be squeezed in because they've not been considered in the overall project."

With all the other trades involved in building and fitting a new house or an apartment block, it can be difficult to squeeze cable in as an afterthought. One of the main problems of being left out of the plans can be a missed opportunity to install cable at the most opportune of moments. Sedman says that it is best for developers to plan cable installation before raised floors or ceilings go in, and that testing needs to be completed before the cable is obstructed to avoid removing floor or ceiling components.

Installing cable when homes and office are in the process of being built presents more problems, as cables can be extremely delicate, and building sites are not the most considerate locations.

"An awful lot of other trades will be working at the same time, who don't know, understand or care about cabling, and one of the hardest parts of installing into that kind of environment is protecting the cable at all times, because you get guys trampling along with their size 12 boots munching up the cable as they go. Many installers don't spend the time to fully protect the cables when doing that."

Sedman adds that few installers have the presence of mind or the purchasing power to buy a sheltered unit with air filtered in and out in order to be able to properly terminate fibre. "Normally it's just done in the dust, and they hope just to get it right, and in the mean time just chop off a load of ends and just terminate," he says.

Although building sites can present problems of their own, when telecom infrastructure is included in the planning process it means cables can be built in to the fabric of the building, with proper access points to allow for installation and maintenance. In contrast, one of the problems of dealing with old buildings can be the poor quality of pipes for cables to be passed through.

"Conduits in the Middle East mainly use small ducts and are difficult to install because of the bend radius of the pipe," divisional manager for Alpha Data's Intelligent Cabling Systems team, Ziad Sultan says. "Some use 90 degrees and don't follow the standard for telecommunication and it is very different to install, especially if the conduit has already been put inside the building. Any new installation it's much easier to lay the cable in trays or on ledges."

Sultan says 90% of the underground cabling projects that Alpha Data is involved with are ducted, and that where ducts are used to house the cable, ropes pull the fibre through the duct.

"The mechanism will be by hand, not using the machines, so technicians will be available at all the manholes," he says, emphasising that the human touch helps to avoid less responsive machines from potentially damaging the cable.

However, Sultan does concede that people pulling fibre could, even if it is only for a few seconds, damage it by pulling it around a tight corner or too forcefully, but he says it is preferable to the damage that could be caused by a machine.

In response to such concerns, UK-based firm CBS has developed a machine that can blow the cables through ducts, which it says is a more efficient way of installing it.

"Pulling cable is very labour intensive and doesn't do the cable any good," says CBS sales and marketing manager, John Davies. "And, installers can only do 200-300 metres at a time between manhole covers."

Davies says that the company's largest machine will blow cables 32mm thick a distance of up to 6km, at speeds of up to 90 metres per minute. Blowing the cables through ducts not only saves time, Davies says, but it also subjects the cable to less stress. While copper cables can cope with the stress of being pulled, fibre optic cables are much more delicate.

Sultan says that for some customers, the cost of using machinery to blow cable can be higher than the cost of manpower needed to pull the cable, and that can determine the method used by installers.

"In this market, in the GCC, labour is much cheaper compared to other areas. It is largely a cost issue. Here in this region sometimes you do not have a separate conduit for the fibre, and so blowing it through a shared conduit may not be possible," he says.

Davies says there has been an increased demand for CBS products and services over the last six months, and while last year Libya was the firm's biggest customer, this year Saudi Arabia looks set to be the biggest market for CBS.

"Two years ago, 30% of our business was export. Now, 60% of it is export, and we expect that to increase again this year," he says. Davies says the drive appears to be coming from FTTX projects, with increased interest in CBS' fibre optic machine, which can install cables that are only 1mm thick.

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