As fibre-optic networks expand the performance of broadband networks increases. Large investment in the expansion and modernisation of cable networks also benefits the cable sector. Some countries, however, such as Germany – are still lagging behind with grid modification.
Turnaround in the Cable Industry The cable industry currently sees itself on the rebound again for television broadcasting – in Germany, for example. According to the Digitalisation Report published in 2014, 17.85 million households receive their TV programmes via a cable connection. “This means the cable industry has managed a turnaround. For the first time in several years the number of cable TV connections has risen slightly rather than dropped,” ANGA e.V., the Association of German Cable Net Operators (Verband Deutscher Kabelnetzbetreiber e.V.), is happy to note. With the gradual changeover to digital reception the cable network has become more attractive again thanks to more channel diversity and improved image and sound quality. The reason underlying this improvement is the digital TV signal which is more compressed and therefore requires less bandwidth. On top of this, the digital signal is less susceptible to interference.
Very soon digital TV will completely replace analogue TV. According to the ANGA Association, “the prerequisites for digital TV distribution will be fulfilled in German cable networks by late 2018.”
Fibre-Optic Cable on the Advance The development and upgrading of cable networks is far from complete however – though they might look to a very promising future. Companies and private households were already able to “travel” on data motorways noticeably faster over the past few years than only ten years ago. But even higher speeds are possible – this is to be ensured by higher-performance fibre-optic cables for telephone, Internet and TV over the coming few years. They are capable of replacing coaxial cables entirely or for the most part. Since numerous European countries still have a high demand for new fibre-optic cable networks cable and wire producers as well as suppliers of cable manufacturing lines with their products and services will be in demand over the next few years. They have to be prepared for changes that will occur medium to long-term and bring opportunities with them.
Originally, cable networks consisted of coaxial cables. Coaxial cables – most of which consist of an inner conductor made of thin, braided or twisted copper wires as well as cable shields also made from braided copper wires – will become a thing of the past for cable networks. “For upgrading the networks coaxial cables are increasingly replaced by more powerful fibre-optic cables so as to transport bigger data volumes,” explains ANGA. The simultaneous transmission of sound and TV broadcasts, telephone calls and data via Internet is improved and facilitated even further by fibre-optic cables.
And why do fibre-optic cables deliver a higher performance? Because their light signals achieve higher transmission speeds and their transmission is less susceptible to electrical or magnetic interferences. Even over longer distances there is no loss of speed or quality. In copper cables the data is transmitted by electric impulses – and this is why they are more susceptible to failure and slower.
High Investment required For a start, however, there will be hybrid networks combining coaxial and fibre-optic cables – the so-called hybrid fibre-coax (HFC) networks – that are based on a division of labour: the fibre-optic networks transport signals and data across long distances while the coaxial cables take care of distribution on the local grids and within the individual homes, explains cable-network operator “Kabel Deutschland”.
The next extension stages, says ANGA, are called FTTC, FTTB and FTTH. For FTTC (Fiber to the Curb) fibre-optic cables are laid all the way up to the coax amplifier, for FTTB (Fiber to the Building) to the home and for FTTH (Fiber to the Home) to the household and/or the individual PC. How fast this extension advances depends on end-user demand. Because the investment needed for very well distributed fibre-optic networks is high.
There is no doubt the future lies in extensive fibre-optic cable networks. And the cable and wire industries are already getting prepared for this – by manufacturing the corresponding products and by producing cable and wire making machines. Among other things they are tailoring cable-twisting machines with and without back-twist, drum twisters with twisting machines, cable armouring lines and steel cable capping machines to the production needs of fibre-optic cables. Furthermore, technology for pre-forming, fibre production and fibre UV coating is needed for production. On top of this, fibre-optic cable manufacturing requires mini and central tubes as well as ribbon cables.
Germany at the Bottom of FFTH Access List Some cable producers have also responded to the fibre-optic network extension by offering complete solutions. They offer hybrid connections combining electrical conductors with fibre-optic components. Add to this separate fibre-optic and energy cables as well as a solution where previously installed coaxial cables for power supply are re-used as lines for passing through fibre-optic data cables.
In many European countries a great deal still remains to be done when it comes to the extension of the fibre-optic network – especially in terms of FTTB and FTTH access. This is evidenced by the ranking of the FTTH Council Europe in 2014. According to this list Germany lags far behind in Europe with some 275,000 households and not even figures among the top-30 nations. By comparison, France and Sweden already boast some 1.2 million fibre-optic connections each. The fibre-optic supply rate in Sweden stands at 26.5% while in Lithuania it is even as high as 34%. Germany, in contrast to this, only achieves less than one percent and is therefore among the worst-performing countries. On a global scale the supply rate of numerous countries is far higher than that of all Europeans. In the lead here are the United Arab Emirates with 75% for FTTH or FTTB connections. South Korea achieves 63%, Hong Kong 57%, Japan 53%, Singapore 41% and Taiwan 38%. China provides 37 million people with these fibre-optic connections, Japan 24.7 million inhabitants.
High-Performance Networks for Business Locations States such as Germany or Italy and Greece might be in trouble if they do not pay attention to a faster extension of their fibre-optic networks: “Countries that only roll out this technology hesitantly will lose out on many opportunities for shaping their economic future,” confirms Karin Ahl, President of the FTTH Council Europe. On the other hand, “leading nations attain a competitive edge over their poorer connected neighbours.” This view is shared by business. “The relevance of smart high-performance networks for Germany as a business location is underscored by the industry like a mantra,” reports the consumer information portal for FTTH, “Glasfaser-Internet”.
“Glasfaser-Internet” has identified “broadband tiredness” as a reason for the still comparatively low fibre-optic network extension. “The interest German consumers are taking in fibre-optic based high-speed Internet has so far been very moderate,” the Portal explains and goes on to say: “Probably also because there are hardly any relevant applications offered by providers – with the exception of IPTV.”
Since the revenue is moderate due to the low interest taken but the costs for network modernisation are high, the companies in charge of extending the network shy away from the necessary investment. This is also why densely populated, dynamic regions benefit from fibre-optic Internet while rural regions instead lose out. ZVEI, the German Association of the Electrical Engineering and Electronics Industry, therefore urges politicians to initiate aid schemes for improving poorly accessible, rural areas.
Technology, Cables and Civil Engineering One example: for connecting 45,000 households – Hanover for example – some 600 kilometres of cable are being laid and over 170 new distribution boxes are being erected. Some 80% of the costs are accounted for by the required civil engineering jobs, the remaining sum by expensive technology and cables. So the huge costs for a complete re-build do not come as a surprise. The Scientific Institute for Infrastructure (Wissenschaftliches Institut für Infrastruktur) estimates that a nationwide fibre-optic extension in Germany would cost some EUR 80 billion.
After all – the Federal Government strives to provide all German households with high-speed Internet of at least 50 Mbit/s in a first step by 2018. The future with fibre-optic cables, however, promises even higher speeds. Technically speaking they are already capable of delivering 100 Mbit/s now – and there are initial projects with 200 Mbit/s.
At times fibre-optic cables – beyond being laid underground – have to cover unusual distances for extraordinary projects – such as major submarine telecommunications projects, for example. A major contract for Nexans, for instance, comprised the supply of some 1,050 kilometres of URC-1 cable without amplifier. By company accounts, “these cables usually consist of 24 to 48 individual fibres which, lined up in a row, would suffice to span the world.” For this Global Marine project the cable is said to cover to a wide spectrum of applications – from the transfer of scientific data from an observation station in the Arctic and the communication between offshore oil rigs to the broadband supply for remote Scottish regions. The cables, the manufacturer goes on to say, allow terrestrial stations, which are up to 500 kilometres apart from each other, to be connected without requiring signal amplification by submarine amplifiers. Thanks to their rugged design these cables can be laid at depths of up to 4,000 metres under the sea. Fibre-optic cables also prove their worth for these submarine applications spanning long distances.
The Future Belongs to Fibre-Optic Cables For another project Global Marine uses two fibre-optic cables measuring 250 metres in length each in order to connect the observation post Ny Aalesund located in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard with the administrative capital Longyearbyen. Since the satellite station in Longyearbyen is already connected to the Norwegian mainland, Ny Aalesund now has a broadband connection to the international network thanks to this extension, says Nexans.
In the digital world where data streams are constantly growing the future doubtlessly belongs to fibre-optic cables with their tremendous performance. So there is plenty of work to do for fibre-optic cable producers and the producers of fibre optic manufacturing machines - and, needless to say, the sector is keen to do it …
The latest developments in the fibre-optic segment will be presented at wire, the International Trade Fair Wire and Cable, in Düsseldorf from 16 to 20 April 2018.