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According to a comprehensive research report by Market Research Future, in 2021 the fiber optics market was valued at $7.3 billion and is projected to grow from $7.9 billion in 2022 to $13.7 billion by 2030.
The passing of President Biden's $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill in November of 2021 earmarked $65 billion for broadband deployment, with $48 billion of that specifically directed toward infrastructure: $42.5 billion for the Broadband Equity, Access, and Development (BEAD) program aimed to bring reliable, affordable, high-speed internet access to underserved communities across the US; $1 billion for improving the middle mile broadband infrastructure to access those underserved areas; $2 billion for tribal broadband buildout; and $2.75 billion for digital equity. This bill is accelerating and increasing the demand for fiber optic infrastructure.
In parallel, the deployment of 5G wireless networks is further driving demand for new high-speed fiber infrastructure with negligible latency to create the transmission backbone these next-generation cellular networks require.
According to GSMA Intelligence forecasts, the US will experience one of the world’s fastest migrations to 5G spurred by a growing consumer appetite for faster data speeds and the desire for intelligent infrastructure enabling connected vehicles. These 5G deployments will require many densely-distributed new radios that will be connected by fiber and, in many cases, multiple fibers. Since the radios are not centralized like LTE, new fiber infrastructure must be deployed to disparate locations.
Both broadband and 5G network architects face the same issue: designing a robust, future-proof network. This can be a challenging prospect for any network designer, from the long-distance high-bandwidth fiber network backbone, down to the street level, and individual fiber drops to the premises. As a result, network owners need to design new fiber infrastructure that can be deployed in a flexible, cost-effective, and timely manner.
Air blown fiber systems can offer advantages over traditional fiber deployment systems. ABF deployments offer reduced material and installation costs, faster installation times, and require fewer fiber connections and splice points. They also offer simplified repair, maintenance, and expansion with a migration path for future applications.
Air Blown Fiber Systems
Air blown fiber cable is not a new technology. Although relatively new compared to conventional cabling methods, it was patented by British Telecom (BT) in 1982 and has been used extensively in Europe with great success in fiber broadband deployment. There are two primary ways to install fiber optic cable in a duct: push it or pull it. Traditional installations include pulling fiber through the pre-installed cable duct. The stress-free method of pushing fiber through a duct via the use of air and mechanical assistance is known as a “blown fiber system”.
The BT blown fiber patent implies that the fiber is propelled along the microduct by airflow passing over the cable at a much higher speed than the cable. This induces the cable to glide forward rather than dragging it by tension.
One of the primary advantages of air blown fiber is the speed of installation. With air blown fiber, you can blow 864 fiber microcables up to 6600’ in about 30 minutes, far less time than with manual pulling. With the ductwork pre-installed and design provisions for future growth, the network owner only needs to install the amount of cable required at that time and can quickly add more fiber when the need arises. This staged installation method can significantly lower capital expenditures by eliminating large amounts of unused (dark) fiber sitting in ducts for many years. Additional time savings can be realized at the time of subscription.
Traditional methods typically involve laying a surface-level cable from the network access point (NAP) to the home as soon as possible with another crew to come later to bury a permanent cable. With pre-installed microducts, only a single truck roll is needed to blow a single drop from the NAP to the home when service is requested.
Cable blowing systems use a hydraulic or pneumatic powered drive belt to start the cable in motion, then introduce an optimized pressure and velocity airflow to effectively take over and float the cable within the duct. This hybrid method reduces friction between the cable and duct during installation using a fiber blowing machine that controls and regulates both assist methods in a single unit.
Both the size of the cable being installed and the duct size dictate which size of the blowing machine will be required. Blowing machines are available to handle a wide range of duct sizes and fibers. With some duct sizes and cable types, installation rates up to 250ft/min can be safely achieved. Ducts are connected using special but easy-to-install connectors (similar to quick-fit plumbing connectors). The ease and flexibility of joining ducts enables efficient branching of several installed sections of duct, which in turn reduces the required number of fiber splicing locations. Depending on the duct’s current fill ratio, you may be able to over-blow or install additional cables or microducts into an existing duct.
When designing a network, the transition from large fiber count backbone cables to branching for local drops is easily handled with the numerous duct configurations available. Fiber transport to the individual home or premises is possible with the use of microducts designed to handle smaller cable sizes for street cabinet hubs and enclosures.
Courtesy of Hexatronic
In a similar effort development, manufacturers have designed optimal cable solutions for use in air blown systems. By incorporating compact fiber arrangement methods, 200µm coated fibers, thinner cable jackets, and eliminating aramid strength members, the weight and size of microcables have been optimized for this application. Microcables also may contain discrete fibers or rollable ribbon configurations. Additionally, the coefficient of friction of microcables has been optimized to reduce drag within complementary ductwork. Typically, microcables offer up to 864 fibers in a compact configuration while fiber units are comprised of 2-12 fibers. While an 864-fiber micro cable can typically be blown up to 6600’, the smaller fiber units are limited to about half that distance.
While historically air blown fiber has proven to be a very flexible solution for subterranean applications, more recent developments in aerial air blown fiber deployment have added even more flexibility. Air blown fiber has also been installed in indoor applications such as commercial office buildings, campuses, and multi-dwelling units, and even deployed in shipboard construction.
No one can predict future fiber deployment needs, but history tells us we must be flexible and able to adapt to changing environments and future connectivity demands in our insatiable appetite for faster data speeds and more reliable service. Air blown fiber offers both the flexibility that designers seek and the cost benefits that network owners crave.
Interested in taking our Introduction to Air Blown Fiber Training Course?
Light Brigade has recently released a two-day Introduction to Air Blown Fiber course aimed at anyone interested in learning the basics of air blown fiber technology or those that have recently purchased blowing equipment and want to learn how and why to use it. This course will also serve as a preparatory measure for the soon-to-be-released four-day instructor-led ABF for Installers and Technicians course.
Fiber Optics Research Report, Market Research Future, 2023
The 5G Era in the US, GSMA Intelligence, 2018
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