Fiber to the desk (FTTD) has long been the dream of those that manufacture and install fiber-optical cable. So far fiber's dominance has proved to be an elusive goal. Though it boasts unlimited bandwidth and unchallenged structural integrity, fiber's higher price and trickier installation have kept it from becoming a serious contender to copper for the FTTD market. That is until now.

Copper data wiring gets ugly The new varieties of copper data cabling-Cat. 6 and 7-are problematic to say the least. To put it briefly and bluntly: The standards that exist are not real standards. Cable and device manufacturers are using different bandwidth (signal speed) figures, the testing equipment costs a ton, and the tests get more complicated all the time. And if you ever thought there was any built-in slop in Cat. 5 installation requirements, it's gone now. To make matters worse, the new Cat. 6 wiring will be 20% to 60% more expensive than Cat. 5 wiring (depending upon whose figures you believe.) This is in addition to the costs associated with the installer being blamed for installations that do not operate as advertised.

Fiber is cheaper Don't believe me? Let me show you why. Those of you familiar with structured cabling and the EIA/TIA 568 standard will recognize the standard network-cabling layout shown in Fig. 1. Note how many hubs there are in this design - one on each floor of the building. These hubs are necessary for a single reason: Copper wiring has severe distance limitations. That is, if you try to run copper data links for more than 100 meters (including vertical portions of the run, and all patch cords), the network will not work.

Now, look at Fig. 2 on page 18F. This network uses fiber-optic cables to create what is called a collapsed backbone architecture. Now, count the hubs-only one, right? This is a big advantage with a fiber network (fiber has little difficulty with longer distances). And do not miss the ancillary savings that this architecture provides: No power circuits are required for the hubs, equipment racks, backboards, UPS systems, conduits, and other small items. In addition, the labor for these items is also eliminated.

If hubs are not required on each floor, neither are the datacom closets. These dedicated spaces can be eliminated. That not only eliminates significant costs, but also frees up space for other uses (more space for which the owners can charge rent).

Does reality matter? And if so, when? Please don't pass this question off as frivolous-reality often takes a back seat to "everybody's doing it," "I've never seen that before," "don't make waves," and a hundred similar slogans. If reality mattered all that much, people would have switched over to fiber the first or second time they had to replace a three-year old copper data cabling system. We've now gone through proprietary cabling systems-Cat. 2, 3, 4, and 5-and we are moving on to Cat. 6. Yet most people think that fiber is too expensive because it has a 10% to 15% higher initial cost (You're not supposed to think about the fact that it lasts for decades). In the final accounting, using the collapsed backbone architecture saves somewhere between $200 and $500 per network computer in total. The total premium for fiber electronics over copper electronics is $100 to $200 per node.

The question that faces us is not whether people should change over to fiber, but whether the cost of ignoring fiber has become too great to bear. It may be that it has, or will be very soon.

A new viewpoint The old network paradigm (pattern) was a smart network center and dumb equipment at the ends. This is how the telephone companies were (and are) set up; with complex switches and call accounting equipment at the phone company facilities, and low-tech telephones on your nightstands.

The new paradigm is quite opposite, with relatively dumb network centers and brilliant personal computers at the end of the line. Internet messages from one computer to another contain their source and destination addresses, and routing is done in hundreds of semi-smart locations rather than at the center. This arrangement is perfect for fiber because fiber's endless bandwidth makes up for network intelligence. Note also that this dumb network is a whole lot cheaper to use than the smart network.

The bottom line here is that the overall economics of the new data world dictate that more bandwidth is so valuable that it is virtually inevitable everywhere. That includes up to and inside buildings. Many new data services will be coming along in the next few years. In the data-networking world, bandwidth is the mother of invention. Only fiber can give such bandwidth.

The final effect of this paradigm shift is that fiber is moving into the office building one way or another. And as fiber comes into the building, networking people begin to get comfortable with it. Eventually, they will get comfortable enough to go all-fiber, which will eliminate the need for a fiber/copper interface in the main telecom closet. Not a major savings, but not entirely insignificant.

Is fiber to the desk inevitable? No, fiber to the end of the line is not inevitable, although it's probably as good a bet as you're going to get. The one technology that could displace fiber inside buildings is wireless datatransmission. If true high-bandwidth wireless technologies can be developed, and if they operate at very low costs, they could take fiber's place. But this is quite unlikely. Indoor wireless networks have been tried before, and have always come up short for most uses. There are problems with speed, radio-frequency interference and antenna placement. Maybe some genius inventor will come up with a host of new ideas that can work together to make wireless networks a reality, but it's not likely.

When the pain of using copper becomes great enough and the advantages of bandwidth are seen well enough, then the masses will change to fiber. I for one, hope it happens very soon.