There has been a lot of recent talk about the benefits of fiber compared to Category Cable for signal distribution. The general arguments are that fiber is more future-compatible and can handle longer distances.
Of course, those statements have been true for quite some time. Meanwhile, the surge in technology professionals embracing fiber seems to be picking up steam. A big reason for the recent momentum is that product enhancements when it comes to durability and ability to quickly terminate and work with fiber in the field have made the solutions more appealing to installers.
Cleerline Technology Group, a maker of fiber signal transport solutions, has focused on addressing any perceived disadvantages of fiber so installers can focus on those overwhelming benefits — future compatibility and ability to reliably address long distances.
As a result, fiber has come a long way, says Bob Michaels, CEO of video distribution solutions provider ZeeVee. “The advances in fiber over the last several years in terms of durability have improved tremendously. I think anybody considering putting in a network 10Gbps or above — which you should probably be considering anyway — should absolutely be considering fiber.”
Robert D’Addario, president and managing director of Cleerline, says his company’s fiber solutions can help installation firms address multiple future compatibility challenges. “In today’s installations, in order for an installer to meet the requirements for uncompressed video distribution, fiber is now required in some form or fashion. We are advocates of bulk fiber solutions because in the long term a fiber infrastructure will be able to handle the ever growing bandwidth demands of not only video distribution, but data distribution in the home or office.”
With all that being said, let’s get the point of view from an installer. Dennis Jaques is owner and a system designer at Nashua, N.H.-based Maverick Integration. His firm focuses on the residential market while also taking on a steady stream of relatively large commercial projects.
Jaques took time to discuss installers’ gradual embrace of fiber over Category cable.
Do you think the A.V. industry has been a little reluctant to embrace fiber?
Jaques: Yes, I do. Residentially, I think they have been reluctant to embrace it. Quite frankly, I think the reason is they don’t want to spend the time to learn. That’s it.
I’m floored at how much certain companies are just not really interested in training. Many companies are more worried about trying to get something done that day or that week, not thinking ahead and planning ahead. Even to the point where I see over 50 percent of the jobs not getting architectural plans, drawings or wiring schematics being done. They’re not even planning out to that level.
In commercial, however, the specifier is providing that in the beginning. In a commercial job we just did there’s fiber but it’s all SFP [small form-factor pluggable] between the switches. It’s not between video displays [etc.], but it was already included in the design. Whereas a homeowner in a residential space doesn’t come to us with a request, “Hey, you have to put fiber in.”
It’s surprising knowing the limitations of the video links. We all know that that’s looming. Obviously there are some issues with not having all the drivers for HDCP 2.2 when fiber certainly first came out. There are not a lot of solutions that satisfy HDCP over fiber, but it’s coming, and why not at least run fiber and leave it dark in the house? That still blows me away.
Cleerline indicates that its SSF fiber products have solved some of the core issues with fiber deployment. Do you agree?
Jaques: Yes. They’ve made it so that the process to install and terminate fiber is such that almost anybody can do. It takes very little effort to learn reusable ends. There are just a number of benefits to putting something together. We’ve made that the only standard of termination we use now.
We don’t use UniCam [fiberoptic connectors] or anything like that anymore because this is so much simpler to use, so much more reliable of a connector. The tensile strength of the fiber alone is actually more than Cat 5. We’re actually using some of their riser grade fiber in exterior applications. It’s great. I’m talking 1,500-foot runs with the stuff and no problem at all.
Let’s talk about some of the perceived benefits of working with fiber. Do you agree that it’s more durable than Category cable?
Jaques: I never believed it. Then I brought it up to Cleerline, because I was talking about an exterior job where we were putting in 38 exterior access points on a property. We were running fiber between all of them, and they asked “Why aren’t you going to use our product?”
I said, ‘Well, I just needed something that had a better pull strength and a better durability than what you have.” Then they showed me the differences between what they did, and it was very surprising. Everything they said was exactly the way it came out. I believe it now. When you feel it in your hand, it feels kind of flimsy, but when you put it in the field, it pulls better than category wire.
Is fiber easier to work with than Category cable?
Jaques: Certainly. It’s a lot more flexible, a lot lighter. The distances you can run — you don’t have to put in repeaters. Terminating [Cleerline’s SSF solution] between brands, you put an LC [lucent connector] or SC [standard connector] on it and then you can go into your SFP [small form factor], whether it’s a Cisco, Luxul switch or whatever.
It works between a variety of different brands, with all the industry standards of LC and SC.
It’s also more reliable. We’ve been using this for termination on all of our switches for five or six years. Not one problem with those. The reason I bring that up is that we would know.
We monitor all of our jobs, and we would get instantaneous warnings. Whereas we had tons of problems with the shielded termination from Cat 6. We’ve had significant issues with termination on products, but never with the LC or SC connectors from fiber.
Is fiber more forward-compatible?
Jaques: Obviously. Bandwidth alone makes it significantly more forward-thinking and it has a lot less limitation than what you’re going to find with a Category wire.
We’ve found the limit of a Category wire, and it’s based on feet. That’s not true with fiber. We’re not having any problems. No one’s coming up to me and saying, “Hey, you can only go two miles with that fiber.”
The distance benefit of fiber over Category cable is significant, right?
Jaques: It’s been phenomenal. Look at video. How is someone taking a video distribution matrix and going 200 feet and keeping HDR? I don’t know how you do it. You can do it at a short distance, maybe 60 feet, but you’re already at the limit of the category cable wire. Fiber, no problem.
Category cable no longer supports requirements for distributing uncompressed UHD video content. Is that likely to drive adoption of fiber?
Jaques: You would think. Many of us are blaming HDMI for these problems, or HDCP for hang-ups on certain products. Sooner or later when you finally go to a job and you can’t go beyond 100 feet, they’re going to have to. I’m surprised that enough jobs are not just putting in fiber parallel to the wiring they’re already doing just in case. You’re definitely going to run into a problem with it because it’s just not going to work.
On the residential side, advancements in high-speed data or AV over IP has stretched the limits of what copper, Category 5, 6, and 7 can support. Now that HDMI licensing has defined the HDMI 2.1 spec, and many integrators are looking to prepare systems for 4K and even 8K, does that point toward fiber as being more likely forward compatible?
Jaques: Certainly. It’s just the chipsets. The fiber chipsets have always lagged behind. You always had a Category wire that had HDCP 2.2 much quicker than the fiber ones. That’s been the limitation. HDR is going to double the bandwidth you need over 4K.
Some integrators might be concerned about terminating, installing, and generally working with fiber. Should that be a concern?
Jaques: No. After you go through the training, and I’m talking hours, you’ll go, “Really? That’s all it was?” It’s amazing. No, they shouldn’t be at all concerned about it.
In general, what’s your outlook on whether integration firms ought to be considering fiber more often?
Jaques: Fiber should be on 100 percent of every integrator’s projects. There’s just no reason not to in some fashion or another — even if it’s just linking switches between buildings, dealing with long distances or just dealing with bandwidth. There are lightning protection benefits of it because it’s totally inert. Just think of going between two buildings. You can’t do that with category wire and be totally inert to lightning or voltage potential differences.
Same thing with switches, stacking. How many jobs have more than one switch? Every one. If you’re doing that, why not connect them with fiber. There are all kinds of benefits.