Contributed Article

High quality, robust products are the key to a sustainable fibre optic network. They will minimise the cost of installation and, with time, significantly reduce the operational expenditure as well as the carbon emissions of the network operator argues Philippe Vanhille, Executive Vice President Telecom Division at Prysmian Group

Quality is key when it comes to fibre optics and fibre optic networks. We should know: Prysmian is Europe’s leading fibre and optic cable manufacturer and the only major optical cable maker in the UK. We have manufactured many of the cables that are integral to the physical, high speed communication network that now connects the globe.

Fibre optic cables use strands of glass to propagate light signals between devices. At the centre of the fibre optic strand is a small inner core that carries the propagated light. To protect the fragile core, it must be surrounded by robust, high performing outer sheath. The quality and compatibility of both elements are fundamental to the performance and longevity of the fibre optic cable. A good quality fibre optic cable, such as those manufactured by Prysmian would be expected to last for 20 to 30 years or even longer.

Fibre optic cables are the passive element in telecoms infrastructure. Given the criticality of the cable to the performance of a telecoms network, it might surprise some investors to know that the cable’s capital cost and that of the connectivity hardware is generally only a fraction of the total cost of the infrastructure investment, often between 10% to 12% of the total. By comparison the cost of installation for the cable could represent as much as 50% or even 60% of the total investment, particularly where the cable is in a congested urban environment. What this means is the longer a cable can remain in place, without the need for replacement, the better value it will provide to investors.

From experience Prysmian know that over its lifetime a cable is likely to be mistreated, often not intentionally but simply because it is often buried in the ground, regularly in the public domain. Underground cables in particular can be mishandled by those working on adjacent utilities. In addition, they need to be able to withstand natural events such as flooding and the stresses of diurnal and seasonal temperature cycling. And, if a cable is connected to an aerial or mast, it may also have to cope with wind forces and snow loading. In the field it is the quality of the cable that what will ensure that it will continue to perform for 20 years or more.

Of course, there are plenty of standard fibre optic cables that have been built in line with a customer’s specification. While the performance of these cables can be demonstrated in a laboratory, customers will have to hope that the quality of these cables will ensure they continue to perform over their expected lifetime, often in far from ideal conditions.

What is the consequence should a cable fail? For the customer it is a disrupted connection and no service. For the company managing the network whose reputation is at stake, the task is first to identify where the problem has occurred, which can be difficult in a big, congested city; then they have to organise for the cable to be repaired or even replaced, which can be even more of a challenge.

Quality is key to longevity. It makes financial sense to choose quality, it makes sense from a reputational perspective, and from a sustainability point of view. Yes, Prysmian can make cables using recycled materials. Yes, Prysmian can make cables smaller, so they use less materials and require less space for installation so buildings can have a smaller footprint. But, if a network operator really wants to be environmentally, economically and socially sustainable, then the most effective thing they can do is to avoid having to replace its fibre optic cable network too soon.

Not only does cable replacement mean additional cost and emissions from manufacture of the replacement, but it also includes emissions from the physical process of digging a new cable trench, along with the impact on nearby businesses and homes.

I admit that this might sound contradictory to Prysmian’s interests as a cable maker. It is not. We need our customers to be economically, socially and environmentally sustainable, so we want them to understand that not all cables are the same when it comes to quality.

A homogenous, robust, reliable network made of quality components and good quality cables can be expected to last for 25 years plus. Whereas a poor-quality network could result in a company having to reinvest more than is necessary in their networks. In the lab and in the field, quality will win out every time. As an experienced cable and fibre optic manufacturer, we have the experience that our products really do last the test of time.

Want to learn more? Philippe Vanhille, Executive Vice President Telecom Division at Prysmian Group, will be talking about the benefits of quality, innovation and miniaturisation in the production of fibre optic cables at Connected Britain 2022  

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