Laying the Foundations for the Digital Future
Fibre Fever and the Role of Compressed Air in Meeting Demands for Next Generation Access, Fibre Optic Cable based High-Speed Data
Author: Alex Persyn, Director of Product Management ROTAIR Portable Compressors
Today, more and more businesses and consumers are demanding reliable high speed data connections, through air waves (such as WiFi, Bluetooth or GSM signals) or by cable. This demand has only grown following the Covid pandemic and the increased use of ‘smart working’ from home. The European Commission has set clear goals for connectivity speeds by 2025:at least 100Mbps for all European households and 1000Mbps or 1Gbps for all main socio-economic drivers (such as schools, research facilities, hospitals,…).The accelerated roll-out of fibre optic cables throughout Europe is a large part of the answer and to achieve this efficiently, compressed air has a surprisingly important role – some may even say that compressed air is the silent workhorse behind meeting the connectivity challenges of the future.
|DSL (for Digital Subscriber Line) is the basic technology used to provide broadband over conventional telephone lines (copper cables)
|VDSL is a "Very-high-speed" version of DSL.
|FTTP (fibre-to-the-premises) is broadband provided over fibreoptic cables going all the way to the home or business premises. This definition also includes "FTTB", where fibreterminates at a large building and broadband distribution within the building, to different flats for example, is by a different non-fibretechnology such as VDSL.
|Next generation access
Fibre Fever in Europe
According to a 2021 EU Commission study on Broadband coverage in Europe , from June 2020 to June 2021 there was a 7% increase in the number of homes passed by FTTP networks –reaching 50.0% of EU homes in total. Despite this, there were still thirteen countries recording FTTP coverage below the EU average. However, the relentless fibre fever continues and is only set to accelerate as more countries recognise that upgrading existing (copper) cables imposes limits on the future speed and performance of connections. Across the EU in the latest study period (June 2020 to June 2021):
- Six countries reached FTTP coverage levels higher than 80%: Spain, Portugal, Iceland, Romania, Bulgaria, and Sweden
- Nine countries recorded double-digit growth in FTTP coverage: Cyprus, France, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Romania, and Slovakia.
- FTTP coverage expanded more quickly than other fixed broadband technologies in rural areas. Rural FTTP availability increased by 8.0 percentage points, reaching a third (33.8%) of rural EU households.
Broadband Coverage in Europe in 2021, a study by HIS Markit, Omdia and Point Topic for the European Commission :
The Italian Situation
- In terms of NGA broadband, high speed broadband services based on NGA technologies were available to 97.0% of Italian households, and to 88.4 % of rural Italian households. Since mid-2020, NGA coverage improved both at a national level (by 4.3 percentage points) as well as a rural level, increasing by 12.2 percentage points.FTTP coverage though accelerated greatly in the last year according to the EU study, increasing by 10.4% and reaching 44.2% of households. Despite this increase, FTTP coverage in Italy remained below the EU average of 50.0%.
- The Italian Strategy for Ultra Broadband Towards the Gigabit Society aims to provide gigabit connectivity to all by 2026. One of the seven intervention areas earmarked by the Strategy is the Plan Italy 1 Giga, with planned allocation EUR 3.8 billion, aiming to provide 1 Gbps in download and 200 Mbps upload speeds in grey and market failure areas. In compliance of the principle of technological neutrality it is planned to cover a total of 8.5 million households by 2026.
Challenges of fibre optic cable laying
Countries are increasingly turning to fibre optic cables, despite the additional infrastructure required in installation, because one of the biggest advantages of fibre optics is that they can handle much more data than older copper cables. Overall, fibre optic cables have a higher bandwidth, which means they can carry more information. However, this means new cables versus upgrading existing copper cables – and this commonly requires digging a trench and laying the tube in the trench, to which the fibre optic cable is then inserted –
Fibre optic cables consist of glass threads, each capable of transmitting digital data modulated into light waves. They effectively send information coded in a beam of light through a glass or plastic pipe. Given the importance of preserving the integrity of the cables, utmost precision in process is required.
Cleaning of the tube is important to ensure success in the whole process, minimising friction when blowing the fibre optic cable later on. To do this, a sponge is blown through the tube with 14 bars of air pressure to remove the initial dirt. Then another sponge is blown through the tube, this time with a lubricant to reduce friction.
At this stage when the fibre optic cable is mechanically fed into the tube by the blow-in machine, it is critical to maintain a constant and reliable air flow at 14 bar as up to several hundred metres of fibre optic cable is fed into the blow-in machine from the reel car, itself which should be positioned correctly to ensure unobstructed cable feeding.
The environmental impact of fibre
The growing attention to climate change leads to more awareness of the environmental impact of technology. In that context digitization is one of the leverages for a lower CO2 emission as it leads to the creation of new applications which make it possible to work more efficiently and to save energy. The use of fibre raises the level of digitization, so that multiple sectors can become greener.
Fibre also contributes more directly to a greener society. While the electrical pulses in copper or cable networks need to be boosted, the light signal in the fibre can be sent over longer distances. As such fibre networks work at higher speeds, meaning that by using the same amount of energy more information can be sent.
Single Length Cable Blowing
The Air Compressor role
Cable blowing is the process of inserting an optical fibre cable into a duct by combining a mechanical pushing force (pneumatic, electric or hydraulic) and a high-speed air flow. After the traction rollers in the blowing device pushed the cable for a few hundred meters, compressed air is injected in the duct. By introducing compressed air the cable inside the duct remains in floating condition, which reduces friction between the cable outer surface and duct inner wall. The compressor role is therefore critical in the efficient and reliable installation of fibre optic cables. It is elementary that the compressor is correctly sized for the project, is able to deliver 14 bar air pressure, is able to cool the compressed air close to ambient temperature and has a moisture separator.
Conclusion: Role of technology and specialist advice to optimise efficiencies
As fibre fever across Europe and around the world grows, the reliable and efficient installation of fibre optic cables and the work ofits installers will come under increasing pressure. However, by making the necessary preparations, utilising the right equipment and seeking specialised support, companies can avoid costly mistakes and develop the expertise and capability necessary to treat this fever and bring efficient and reliable next generation access to the world.
ROTAIR range of fibre-dedicated 14bar compressors with inbuilt aftercooler and moisture separator, from Backbone to last Mile
|VRK FIBRA – VRK FIBRA PLUS
What’s driving the growth of fibre in Europe?
From a technological perspective, it’s clear that a lot of regions are trying to catch up, and if you look at Europe it’s working hard to become digital proof, with the UK and Germany among the biggest hotspot regions for growth.
What challenges do contractors face with fibre optic cable installation?
For contractors, the main challenge will be the installation of the cable, which requires particular care and knowhow.
On the cost side, we are talking about building new networks with special equipment. In best case fibre cables can be blown in available ducts, in other cases trenching is required which means more time and more labour.
How can contractors overcome the challenges of installing fibre optic cables?
There’s a lot of focus on efficiency as there is no room for trial and error as the fibre cables are expensive and all projects are running against tight timelines.
The best results are achieved by experienced teams supported by reliable equipment. For example, we are seeing the sector increasingly use smart blowing machines. These, combined with compressors like ours can help contractors overcome some of those challenges they face.
What opportunities does the demand for fibre connection bring for contractors?
The European Commission has set clear connectivity targets to make Europe digital proof.Firstly, to have at least 100Mbps for all European households and 1000Mbps or 1Gbps for all main socio-economic drivers by 2025. Secondly, the Commission has also set a target of 2030 for all European households to be covered by gigabit networks. Every target is quite ambitious and requires sufficient teams in the field to make it happen.
Especially in regions where operators have historically focused on upgrading legacy copper and cable networks, fibre projects are now booming business.
Are there any barriers to integration for particular regions?
The good thing about our VRK Fibra models , which are tailored to the fibre segment, is that they are powered by a petrol engine. This means not affected by stage or tier emission legislations which affect other diesel powered equipment.
The other models in our range which accommodate different phases in fibre roll-out projects might have a different spec depending on the region where you go to, but it does not change the approach to flow, pressure or the aftercooling of the compressed air.