Q&A: The engineering evolution behind fibre broadband
Fibre broadband has been a long time in the making, with BT developing the technology for it’s current deployment over the past two decades.
Fibre-to-the-premises broadband soon set to become a reality, however, following BT’s trials in Milton Keynes of 100Mbits/sec connections using existing ducts, while rival Virgin’s plans to start offering similarly speedy fibre packages to customers by the end of this year.
Despite decades working on fibre, engineers are still coming up with new ways to connect strands of fibre from homes to the network – the current technique involves a high-tech “fusion splicer” to join the pieces up.
Richard Walter was an engineer at BT when fibre first arrived on the scene. He’s been working on it ever since – and is now helping manage the FTTP trial in Milton Keynes.
Walter spoke to PC Pro about how strange fibre seemed back then, the evolution in equipment used to connect strands, and why small hands are key attributes of modern engineers.
Q. When you first saw fibre two decades ago, what did you think?
A. The first time, I didn’t have a clue. The first time I saw a fibre cable, I thought: “this is mad”.
My experience was working on coaxial cable and copper cables – huge copper cables – and it took two weeks’ work to join them. And then we’re told a tiny strand of glass would take anything we wanted to put down it. The only restriction on it was the speed of electronics at both ends, which at that time were very slow.
So we’re putting these cables in, and I’m trying to stick two human hairs together, and I’m using a bit of glue to stick them together. It was so amazing. If you said to me then, ‘Where will it be in 30 years’ time?’ I wouldn’t have thought it would catch on, that you would put it into houses.
Q. That’s very different from the specialised equipment – called a fusion splicer – BT now uses to instantly fuse the ends of two fibre strands together. How much has the engineering equipment changed since then?
A. In those days, it was literally gluing. You had this v-shaped form, and you used to push fibres into both ends and just pour all this glue on top. And it stuck together and that was it.
The first fusion splicer was the size of a chair and it had two microscopes. You used to have to look down and manually configure it to get each strand lined up. It used to take 20, 30 minutes for each fibre. The issue with that was it took so much power that we could only do five or six at a time, and it’d drain the machine.
We’ve got to the stage now where the machine really does it all for itself. It’s relatively simple.
Q. What’s the next upgrade to technology engineers can expect to see?
A.The next main thing is, do we need to fusion splice it anymore, why can’t you just do a mechanical joint? There’s a little plastic piece you can get, where you just push the fibres in and push it down with a pair of pliers. That’s what they’re doing in Japan. With their fibre to the homes, they’re not doing fusion splicing. It’s faster and cheaper to not do it.
Q. How expensive is it to use fusion splicing?
A. The cost in training required for these guys is a huge investment. To give these guys the equipment is about £13,000 per person. And then the equipment we give them doesn’t fit in the vehicles we’ve got, so we’ve got to get them new vehicles. So you’ve got the training costs, the equipment costs, the vehicle cost – and that’s before we even start connecting people.
Q. How hard is it to find staff for these jobs?
A. Of the people that we’ve taken, the first few we took, we handpicked – guys that showed an aptitude for it, and they got on fine. So the next chance was volunteers, some of whom had huge fingers and couldn’t do it very well.
It sounds silly, but they do struggle. We’ve had a four or five women who have worked out really well [because of their smaller hands].
We’ve had a couple engineers try it who ended up unsuitable and a couple that have come up and said they couldn’t do it. I know it sounds stupid, but dealing with those fibres isn’t a joy to do – especially in the winter when it’s windy and raining.
But in the summer, in August, they’ve all got sun tans.