FOA Guide

Fiber Optic Standards

No application in the communications industry could work without industry standards. Any standard's main goal is to create uniform specifications for products that ensure interoperability among various manufacturer’s products. Standards start at the component level that cover specifications for connectors and cables, for example, making them intermateable and procedures on how to test them. Standards at the system level cover signal frequencies and amplitudes, protocols, data encoding, packet length, timing, error correction and many other factors that are needed to guarantee that systems can talk to each other. Systems like cellphones, Ethernet and WiFi rely on industry standards, as does the cabling that connects them.

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Manufacturers contribute to the standards so they can have, as a participant who headed one of these committees once said, “mutually agreed-upon specifications for product development.”  Few users actually need to refer to the standards themselves. Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) cabling standards for fiber optic cabling, for example, are of much more useful to manufacturers of cables, connecting hardware, networking electronics and test equipment than to end users installing cabling in their networks. In fact, few users could be expected to wade through the boilerplate of the standards, translating them from “standardese,” the quasi-legal “language” they are written in, sifting among the minutiae and “shoulds” or “shalls” to try to figure out how to design and install a cabling network. Manufactures provide their customers with products that meet the standards and directions for their proper use, meaning customers generally do not need to depend on understanding the meaning of the standards themselves.

For standardized fiber optic cabling, standards are now under the auspices of the TIA Technical Committee TR-42 for the US and ISO JTC 1 internationally which also handles premises or structured cabling, including unshielded twisted pair copper and fiebr optics. The goal of this committee is to produce a predictable minimum performance level for cabling that manufacturers can use for developing communications products. Those products have traditionally been communications products like telephone systems, CATV systems, Ethernet LANs, but now also include security systems, both CCTV and alarms, building control systems, audio or anything that can work over the standardized cabling system. The cabling standards are minimums, so many companies can offer enhanced products that exceed the standards and offer benefits to certain users, as well as providing a competitive advantage.

The manufacturers of network electronics have their own standards meetings where they do similar work, for example Ethernet in the IEEE 802.3 committees and various IEC international telecom standards. Liaison between the network and cabling committees generally assures that their standards will work together. In fact, the committees often use input from each other to set their agendas and technical targets. Other applications that use cabling, such as video, must rely on the cabling standards during their product development, as they are basically proprietary applications, not covered by industry standards. However, should manufacturers of video products want such a standard, they could initiate a similar process to create one.

Since the manufacturers develop the standards for their own use, they assume the responsibility for educating their personnel and customers, distributors or end users. Fortunately, companies involved in developing the standards or selling products based on them do a very good job of translating the relevant standards into understandable language. Practically every company involved in fiber optic cabling seems to have a section in the back of their catalog and on their website devoted to explaining the standards. It is here, not the standards themselves, where the relevant information is to be found. A quick search of “fiber optic cabling standards” on the Web will give you numerous links to companies and technical websites like the FOA “Tech Topics” that offer summaries of these standards.

Covering standards in textbooks and training programs that cover cabling is difficult. Standards change continuously, with the written, approved versions often lagging current product technology by months or even years. Instructors and authors must hedge on the way they refer to standards, covering the scope of the current and expected future versions, but not trying to offer definitive information on them, which would be hopelessly out of date. The best method of understanding standards is to depend on the manufacturers who write the standards and make products according to them. Their continual involvement ensures up to date information.

The FOA has tried to gather together information on standards for both components and networks using fiber optics. In keeping with what we say above, we expect these references to be outdated and manufacturers should be contacted for the latest information.

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