Structured Cabling Selection: Conventional Fiber vs. Air Blown Fiber
It is one thing to select the type of equipment you need at your facility and yet another to determine what cabling is best to connect to it. Calculations regarding data, speed, distance, and more can create a headache for even the most straightforward installs. When all the calculations are complete, one of the most important decisions you can make is the cabling you need to accomplish the task at hand.
Before diving into costs and benefits, let us first define the differences between the two types of cabling.
Fiber-optic cables transfer data via pulses of light. The optical fibers consist of thin strands of plastic or glass less than 1/10 as thick as a human hair. A second layer of glass, termed “cladding,” is then wrapped around the central fiber, causing light to continually reflect off the cable walls rather than seep out at the edges, so the signal travels farther without attenuation. Since fiber optics use light to transmit data instead of electrical signals, the speed is breakneck ― almost the speed of light.
Fiber, though, has gone through a transformation over the years. Traditionally, you had two choices when installing fiber optic cable: You could push it or pull it. However, today air-blown fiber optic cabling is an increasingly popular option for business owners to maximize their networks’ efficiency and speed.
Have you ever seen a maglev train? It glides across the top of the track, never really touching it and thereby minimizing the friction. This scenario is similar to air blown fiber. Air is blown into micro ducts to create a nearly frictionless surface. This air reduces the friction between the fiber cable jacket and the inside wall of the duct. In other words, the cable touches air instead of the duct, making it much easier and faster to install.
What are the benefits of air-blown cabling?
The use of space is a significant factor influencing the choice for ABF. Fiber cables may use as little as one-sixth of the area of traditional network cables. This results in conduits that can fit quite a bit more lines into the same space.
Installation and modification are also a key differentiator for ABF. Your technology and business needs change over time. For example, adding staff typically requires increased wiring or bandwidth to keep up with your network’s needs. With ABF, once the backbone of pathways and conduits is complete, you can blow another set of fiber down the previously blown cable, adding future installations with ease. This eliminates the need to remove old cables to add the new ones. Your technology can be updated faster, at a lower cost, and without disruption to your network and your workers. Several other factors may influence your decision.
The cost vs. the return
These days, fiber is much more commonplace and on a more localized scale thanks to lower barriers to entry and reduced costs.
The price of Installation for ABF may be slightly higher at first due to installing the infrastructure and the cost for the material. The offset, however, is labor will cost you less, and in most instances, there is no need to install a protective inner duct. As a result, both conventional fiber cable and BOF’s initial installation costs are relatively the same.
Systems using blown fiber often claim to provide a cost advantage over conventional cabling platforms in two ways. First, the purchasing decision in favor of fiber can be delayed until it is actually needed, and second, ABF removes the need for splicing and interconnection points.
When to use conventional cabling versus ABF
Structured cabling systems with conventional fiber-optic cable have proven to be an efficient, cost-effective solution for private networks. While ABF has a list of substantial benefits, there are, however, projects where ABF might not provide the right balance of costs versus benefits.
One example is the approach to growth. Most ABF installations would include room for network growth. However, if most of the connections are spoken for, ABF could be a more problematic justification. This is because much of the value is in its lower costs over time. Saving money by installing only what you need today might save money today but not planning for future growth can remove this future benefit. If your needs are so large where they won’t be leaving large amounts of unused dark fiber, ABF may not be the right solution.
We recommend ABF generally for environments where lots of moves, adds, and changes are expected. That is where you save money over conventional cabling installs. However, you will never get away from conventional fiber completely. For example, in environments where the network requires an extensive strand count backbone (i.e., 144, 288, etc.).
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