Fiber 101: When, Where, and How to Use It

Tech Tip: Fiber 101: When, Where, and How to Use It


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The year was 1997, the Internet was fairly new to most of us and we were all very excited about it. AOL Instant Messenger was the hottest new thing, and I remember thinking how great it would be one day if my friends and I could share more than worded messages. We simply needed more bandwidth to share pictures as the phone line couldn’t cut it! A year later the family upgraded to a cable modem and we thought that all of our problems were solved. Fast forward a few years and one day my street was full of utility trucks fitted with giant spools of bright orange cable. After curiously asking one of the technicians, it turns out they were installing fiber optic cable throughout the neighborhood. He claimed that fiber would give us faster data speeds and there would be no more slow Internet during peak times. Since then we have seen Internet speeds increase dramatically.
 
Now here we are in the second half of 2018. Fiber is not only used as the backbone of the Internet, but now we are starting to see it used in A/V systems. We have seen fiber for years as a digital audio connection, but using it for video is something completely different. Fiber used as an audio cable had a bandwidth of about 125Mbps, and for video we are talking about 18Gbps...soon to be 48Gbps with HDMI 2.1, then 178Gbps later down the road.
 
As someone who is a big advocate of future proofing, I’d like to go over a few things about fiber and how it applies to an A/V system.
 
Fiber optic cable can transmit signals much faster than copper cable. If the race is photons vs electrons, photons win every time. Because we are talking about pulses of light vs magnetic energy, signals that are traveling through the fiber cable will not be compromised by EMI (electromagnetic interference). This means that you can install fiber along with romex and not having to worry about signal loss of any kind. Fiber is also much more reliable over long distances since it loses much less data compared to copper cable. Fiber also tends to be pretty tough. Wrapping it around a corner or accidentally stomping on it in an attic will not have any negative effects on it’s performance. In fact, fiber cables have 4 - 8 times the pull strength compared to a Category cable.
 
There are 2 types of fiber to choose from; Optical Mulitmode or Optical Single Mode. Optical Single Mode is appropriate for runs that are miles long, while Optical Multimode is appropriate for typical A/V runs in a home or commercial environment. The cable consists of a glass core surrounded by a layer of cladding. The cladding keeps the photons trapped in the fiber core and helps them travel in the right direction. Surrounding the cladding is a protective material, sometimes made of a polymer of even kevlar, then the last layer is the jacket. Many different jackets are available depending on your needs. The jacket could be plenum rated, direct burial rated, made of a simple plastic material, etc. so be sure to pick the right type of jacket for the job.
 
There are multi-strand fiber optic cables available. These cables have multiple fiber cores, allowing for multiple different signals to travel down a single cable. For example, you would probably want to install one multi strand cable vs multiple single strand cables. The multi-strand cable is more expensive up front but will save money in the long run.
 
Fiber optic cable can be either simplex or multiplex. Simplex is a typical single cable while multiplex is actually two fiber optic cables that are attached to each other like a zipcord. Multiplex is ideal as it has enough fiber to last generations, but it is more expensive than simplex due to it having twice the amount of materials.
 
The clarity of the fiber optic cable is rated and given a number. The higher the number, the clearer the fiber. The ratings range from OM1 - OM4, OM4 being the clearest. In commercial and residential applications OM2 should get the job done, but OM3 is recommended for future proofing. There is an OM5, but that is used for environments such as data centers where speeds over 100Gbps are needed.
 
Terminating fiber optic cable used to be scary and very dangerous. Expensive tools, special training, and something resembling a hazmat suit was needed to get the job done safely. Luckily those days are over! Fiber termination tool kits are now very affordable, and with a little practice you will be able to terminate fiber in less than a minute. I personally find it easier and much faster than terminating Category cable.
 
There are several types of ends available for terminating fiber optic cable, but two are common in A/V applications; SC and LC. Invented in the 1980s, SC or “square connectors” are very common. LC, or “Lucent Connectors” are considered the next evolution for fiber ends as they are two times smaller than SC connectors. Most A/V products use LC connectors.
 
AVPro Edge suggests using Cleerline fiber, it's much safer and easier to work with. We keep it in stock as well so if you are already purchasing our AC-EXO-AUHD-KIT fiber optic extender kit, make sure you purchase Cleerline fiber. 

As you know, A/V and Home Theater devices do not have fiber optic connections for this type of application. HDMI is here to stay, so there has to be a way to convert from HDMI to fiber and vice versa. The most practical application for fiber right now is using it to extend HDMI signals. Instead of running a unreliable long HDMI cable or a bandwidth starved Category cable, run a fiber optic cable instead. Let’s say a customer wants the A/V rack in the basement and the theater room is on the other side of the house. For a job like this I would choose simplex OM3 cable, LC connectors, and a fiber optic extender like the AC-EXO-444. This package would allow me to extend the signal a long as 1000 feet at a full 18Gbps, and If I switched over to a single mode fiber optic cable the distance increases to 1.25 miles!
 
The transmitter and receiver in an extender kit each contain a part called an SFP (Small form-factor pluggable transceiver). The SFP is modular, meaning that in the future you can remove it and upgrade it as demand for bandwidth increases. SFPs are readily available and swapping them out is simple. No more having to replace the entire infrastructure every time we see a new format.
 
As bandwidth requirements continue to increase for A/V systems, every contractor, integrator, and installer should consider using fiber optic cable as the system’s backbone. Having a strong, reliable infrastructure means less service calls and happier customers. Plus, think of how much easier it will be when it comes to upgrade to 48Gbps, 178Gbps, or whatever we might see in the future. Now that it is affordable and easy to work with, fiber seems like the only way to go as the industry continues to evolve.
 
For more information on the AC-EXO-444 fiber extender and other fiber solutions, give us a call at 605-274-6055 or visit us at www.avproedge.com.
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