FOA - Fiber Optics For Managers
Fiber Optics for managers

Fiber Optic Project Management (For Managers)

In the FOA, as part of the fiber optic industry and especially in our role as educators, most of our focus has been training installers of fiber optic cable plants and networks in fiber optics. But what about the people for whom they work or build the networks? What do network managers, project managers, supervisors, network owners, IT personnel, facilities managers, network designers, estimators, inspectors, etc. need to know about fiber optics to ensure the success of their project?

To define a "project," there is an FOA Guide page on fiber optic projects.

The responsibility for the success or failure of any project ultimately lies with the project manager. We've seen quite a few instances of fiber optic project problems caused by improper management and many of the help calls we get at FOA indicate the manager's lack of knowledge of fiber optics. Some of the problems they call us about are amazing. An IT manager for a large metropolitan area found that the cable plant he had installed didn't work because it had 4,000 bad connectors. Another sent us OTDR traces submitted by his contractor for documentation that showed the cables were too short to test with an OTDR. In one big project, contractors subcontracted to firms that had no fiber experience who were digging up and breaking underground utilities daily.

These kinds of problems can be cured easily if the managers have some basic knowledge of fiber optics. They do not need a typical FOA fiber optic training course because those courses are based on KSAs the knowledge skills and abilities needed by installers. What they need is just a basic understanding of fiber optic network design, installation, testing and operation.

Who Is  a "Manager"?
The manager may be the supervisor of a crew of installers building the network, of course, or the manager of a contracting company. There is the communications or IT manager who works for the owner of the network, specifies the communications requirements and has responsibility for the operation of the network after construction. The buildings or facilities manager overseeing the locations where the project is installed may be involved in its installation, operation and maintenance. In some cases, it would include the inspector overseeing the construction and approving it. In this category, we include anyone who is involved with the network and has responsibilities that include the fiber optic network itself.

Here at the FOA, we get lot of calls from those kinds of people asking questions that show they need to know (and want to know) more - at least enough to make intelligent decisions regarding the project that affect its success. This article will cover what we think the bosses need to know based on what they have asked us.

The Basics - What Does A Manager Need To Know?
Fiber optic communications is quite simple. Instead of sending signals as pulses of electricity or radio waves, fiber optics uses pulses of light transmitted down a hair-thin ultra-pure strand of glass. Cables holding tens, hundreds or even thousands of fibers can be run underground, aerially on poles or even under water. Construction of a fiber optic cable plant is similar to that of any other cable and there are thousands of trained and FOA-certified techs available to build fiber optic networks.

Managers need to know the basics, the jargon, and how to communicate with suppliers, contractors and installers. Forget the physics and optics - not even installers need to know the technology that makes fiber optic communications possible. Managers do need to learn about fiber optic components like the types of fibers (singlemode or multimode) used in various networks to ensure the proper ones have been chosen for the installation. We prevented a manager recently from ordering tens of miles of outside plant cable with the wrong fiber - multimode not singlemode. Hopefully a sales person, distributor or manufacturer would have questioned his choice but if not, he would be stuck with a large amount of virtually worthless cable.

They should also learn about cables and their applications. We've seen specs for direct burial armored cables that were to be pulled through conduit and non-armored cable designed into a project for direct burial. We've seen indoor cable specified for outdoor installation and outdoor cable specified for premises installation. You must know what is the proper cable choice for the installation.

Fiber optic connector compatibility is another important issue. Twice recently I have been asked by managers about the difference between PC (physical contact) and APC (angled physical contact) connectors and whether they are compatible. They certainly are not and may be damaged by mating to the wrong type. But try to find that advice on a manufacturer's or distributor's website - they expect everyone to know that already.

Those can be expensive mistakes! A few minutes learning the basics from books or online at Fiber U or the FOA website can answer those questions and prevent some big problems. Or just call us at the FOA that's what many people do.

Don't believe the classic "myths of fiber optics." I once jokingly threatened physical harm to the new editor of one magazine I write for if he ever published another article that said "fiber optics is fragile because it's made of glass, is much more expensive than copper cables and is very hard to install."

Let's kill off those myths once and for all. The pure glass in optical fiber is many times stronger than steel and fiber optic cable is much more flexible than coax or twisted pair copper cable. Even 30 years ago, fiber had the bandwidth and distance advantages that made communications over fiber optics cost only s few percent as much as over copper or microwave radio. Today we can put almost one million times more communications over fiber than back then. And finally, there are more than 100,000 skilled installers who have installed millions of miles of fiber and will attest to the fact that it's just another skill to learn.

To learn about the basics of fiber optics, start with
Fiber Optic Jargon-Illustrated - learn to speak the language of fiber optics.  Consider getting a copy of our basic fiber optics or outside plant fiber optics textbooks as a reference for your bookshelf.

The Design
It is at the design stage that the manager has the most important role in the success of a fiber optic project. This is not a time to delegate without oversight. The manager must be able to evaluate options presented and make decisions based on the input of many others.

If someone who works for you is designing a fiber optic network, they need to know whether it provides the communications capacity you need for today and over its projected lifetime. Are there enough fibers for spares and future expansion? Can the network support drops to new user locations? Has the network been designed optimally for both performance and cost? Are all the components chosen appropriate for the network. Is the network secure and are you prepared to restore outages? One good test is to create a scope of work (SOW) and send out a request for proposal (RFP) to some experienced contractors for comments.

FOA has a complete textbook on fiber optic network design but the basics are summarized on this page in our FOA Guide online.

Construction And Installation
Fiber optic cable plants can be installed outside (called "OSP" for outside plant) or indoors (called "premises"). The OSP cable plant can be installed underground, aerial or under water. All have various techniques that can be chosen depending on the geography of the route or local requirements, for instance that all cables must be placed underground. Premises cabling is often a mix of fiber optics and copper cabling. It will be covered by codes like the NEC to ensure safety for those inside the building.

The FOA Guide has a section on Construction and another on Installation.

The Contractor
How do you evaluate contractors? The top of the list of requirements is experience in similar jobs backed by great references. Are their designers, managers and installers properly trained and certified? How much personnel turnover do they have? What's their plan for on-the-job training (OJT) for new recruits? Are they fully equipped for the job? What other jobs are they qualified for? Electrical construction and fiber optics are often done by the same contractor - although by different divisions of the same company - and may yield more efficient construction when electrical services are required in communications facilities.

If the contractor is chosen in a bid process, don't blindly choose the lowest bidder. Include in the RFQ (request for quotation) requirements for the bidders to include lots of information about the company that will allow evaluation of their ability to complete the job properly, including company history, personnel, structur
e, financial history, worker credentials, experience and of course references. We've seen jobs go to the lowest bidder where the contractor installed thousands of splices and connectors improperly, submitted erroneous test data, got paid and disappeared, leaving the network owner holding the bag. In another case of improper installation, the contractor went bankrupt when forced to redo the job correctly.

Choosing a fiber optic contractor.

Evaluating The Quality Of An Installation
If the contract covers both electronic equipment and fiber optic cable plant, the number one concern is if the communications system works as planned. Under any circumstances, the quality of the fiber optic cable plant needs to be evaluated independently.  Every step of the way should be documented and inspected to ensure that the network was installed in a "neat and workmanlike manner."
The installation needs to be completely tested to confirm it meets the design goals and documentation of the test results presented along with the other project documentation. Fiber optic testing is a complex process that requires a trained and experienced tech to perform properly.

Here is a summary of fiber optic testing procedures from the FOA Guide.

Too many networks have inadequate documentation, insufficient to evaluate the installation, allow moves, adds and changes (MACs) or restoration in an emergency. Many managers and installers think the documentation is created after the network is built, but that's completely wrong. Network documentation starts when the idea of the network is conceived, evolves through the design, creation of the scope of work (SOW), RFP and RFQ (request for quote), installation and testing. Documentation should be one of the legal requirements of the contract for network installation. The installer should get the final payment only after they submit all the documentation required, not before.

Documentation must include the route of the cable plant and the type of installation (aerial, underground, etc.) and  location of every component of the fiber optic cable plant including cables, splices, terminations, pedestals, manholes/handholes, etc. The documentation must include the path of every cable, every fiber in the cable (with color codes) and the test results from testing each fiber. If that sounds like a lot of work and a lot of data, it is, but that's what's necessary to determine what has been installed and if it was installed according to the plans. That data will be invaluable when changes need to be made to the cable plant or restoration must be done in event of an break.

There are software aids for documentation. Geographic information systems (GIS) are now widely used for for both aerial and underground
utility locations and can be used to also locate the fiber optic cable plant. Other software for documenting the cable plant are available or one can create their own with database or spreadsheet programs. For premises cabling, software similar to that used for designing electrical systems are readily available and may be useful for some OSP applications. They offer the advantage of helping with estimating too.

Here is some more information on project paperwork from the FOA Guide.

When do you know the cable plant installation is complete?  Here are the "deliverables."  

Operating A Fiber Optic Network
Everyone who converts to fiber learns fast that fiber needs virtually no maintenance. Fiber should be installed, tested, locked up and forgotten unless you need to modify the network or repair damage. Most damage to the network is caused by poorly trained techs working with cables they don't understand. Another major problem is damage outside your control - underground cables suffering what we in the industry call "backhoe fade," or for aerial cables what a utility out West referred to as "target practice".

Emergency Restoration
Like any other problem, restoring a fiber optic network failure is easier if you plan ahead. If you have damage, the most valuable tool you have for restoration is all the documentation on the network. With that you know exactly where the cable plant is installed and troubleshooting test results can be compared to the fibers when installed. Leftover components like spools of cable, splice closures or other hardware should be kept, stored with the documentation for use in restoration. And, of course, you need trained crews on 24/7 call, who have the skills to track down problem and fix them. If you don't have your own personnel who can do this, have a contract with someone who can and will respond quickly.

Here is some more information on cable plant restoration from the FOA Guide.

Getting Up To Speed
How does a manager learn all this? You can learn by experience, of course, although that's often a painful way to learn. If your personnel are being trained, take a course with them. If you want to learn on your own, there is plenty of information on the FOA website and free self-study programs at Fiber U that can help you understand fiber optic project management.

Fiber Optic Jargon-Illustrated - learn to speak the language of fiber optics.


Table of Contents: The FOA Reference Guide To Fiber Optics


Disclaimer: This information is provided by The Fiber Optic Association, Inc. as a benefit to those interested in teaching, designing, manufacturing, selling, installing or using fiber optic communications systems or networks. It is intended to be used as an overview and/or basic guidelines and in no way should be considered to be complete or comprehensive. These guidelines are strictly the opinion of the FOA and the reader is expected to use them as a basis for learning, as a reference and for creating their own documentation, project specifications, etc. Those working with fiber optics in the classroom, laboratory or field should follow all safety rules carefully. The FOA assumes no liability for the use of any of this material.

(C)2019, The Fiber Optic Association, Inc.