UltraHD 4K’s growing popularity is forcing fundamental change within the consumer and commercial electronics industries, and the result is rapid adoption of fiber-based cabling solutions.
Integrators who routinely work with traditional cabling solutions are now finding there are limitations to copper-based cabling products. Emerging as an alternative to copper and new and potentially expensive AV over IP high-speed connectivity options is fiber optic cabling.
Breaking the stereotypes and misinformation associated with fiber that often inhibit the high-speed connectivity solution’s use, fiber is now finding its way into more than just data-intensive networks found on college campuses, broadcast facilities, and other locations that require high-speed connectivity. Increasingly, commercial integrators and residential electronics professionals are using fiber products to provide connectivity for today’s A/V formats and high-speed network systems.
The Basics of Fiber vs Cabling for High-Speed Connectivity
Many integrators are outpaced by a rapidly-changing market and are left without much experience handling fiber.
Explaining the differences integrators find between fiber and copper cabling products, Robert D’addario, CEO of Cleerline Technology Group says the complex differences between cable types can be explained simply.
“Fiber optic cable systems transfer data using light energy instead of electrical pulses. The light is infrared and out of the human visibility spectrum. The fiber signal travels down a small silica core smaller than the size of a human hair,” he explains.
“Copper cable must deal with a variety of issues like impedance, capacitance and shielding to enable higher bandwidth communications, while fiber communications must deal with attenuation within a system and model dispersion.”
“Attenuation specifically deals with the amount of amplitude lost within the cable and connection points are described in decibels or ‘dB.’ Modal dispersion is determined by the hardware and the grade of the cable—specifically for multi-mode fiber types. Most of the distance limitations within the AV community on multi-mode fiber are due to modal dispersion, and not link budget [allowable loss]. They are easily navigated by understanding the bandwidth ratings for the grade of fiber being used.”
D’addario says there are several benefits to high-speed connectivity that fiber offers over copper that include durability, size, its rejection of lightning strikes and immunity to EMI/RF interference.
Arguably the biggest benefit that fiber offers is its bandwidth capabilities, he says.
“Fiber optics have much more bandwidth available today, and will be expanded upon in the future without significant changes to the fiber types being used. That means an OM3 multi-mode fiber network implemented today will have a much longer effective life supporting emerging technologies than an equivalent copper network,” he says.
“Current multi-mode links range from 100Mbps to 100Gbps over two strands of fiber. In general there are foreseeable limitations to multi-mode networks, but we have not come close to encountering them yet, while copper networks are at their effective sunset of use due to speed limitations inherent to copper transmission.”
As for Fiber vs Cabling speeds, “fiber is only limited currently by the equipment plugged into it; speeds of 100Gbps, 400Gbps and beyond are all capable due to signal transmission at the speed of light.”
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Harnessing the benefits of fiber can be a daunting task if an integrator lacks the experience and training in terminating the products, but D’addario says there are plenty of resources available to installation professionals to make the job easy.
“Traditional fiber—even the bend insensitive stuff requires a good deal of understanding, training and practice prior to being able to implement,” he notes.
“There is an entire industry built around fiber termination training and certification to guard against improper installation. That being said, Cleerline SSF offers a solution with no formal training or certification. The product was built from the ground up to be as easy or easier than UTP [unshielded twisted pair]. Simply terminating SSF fiber is the same learning curve as that of terminating Cat-6 for any technician.”
New Fiber Products are Emerging
Increasing demand in the residential market drives the development of a new era of cabling based on fiber. The primary driver behind these new products is the high-speed bandwidth requirements of HDMI 2.0 and the newly announced HDMI 2.1 formats, which are designed to support up to 18Gbps and 48Gbps of bandwidth each, respectively.
Through their ability to deliver 18Gbps and 48Gbps, the formats support the transmission of uncompressed video formats ranging from UltraHD 4K with HDR [high dynamic range] to 8K at 60Hz video, and lossless audio that includes the object-based surround sound formats Dolby Atmos and DTS:X.
Brent McCall, product development and technical support, for Metra Home Theater Group, that sources and displays are reaching the 18Gbps level the quality of cabling is now the most important component within a system.
Beyond the increase in bandwidth requirements, the real Fiber vs Cabling challenge is the distance of signal transmission. He says that once HDMI cabling runs extend beyond 98 feet (30 meters), fiber becomes the best solution to support 18Gbps.
Explaining the development of Metra’s HDMI products, McCall says that the goal is the same, but the processes in which the company meets the criteria for copper and fiber is entirely different.
“With copper we have to look at the requirements to rebuild a collapsed High-Speed connectivity (video/audio) and Low Speed (EDID) analog signal [it reads as digital], as well as maintaining the correct voltage/current values down the entire path,” he says.
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“This is considerably more difficult in the development stage than with optical. Optical, in theory, involves simply finding the TX/RX [Tosa/Rosa] set that will match the needed speed. While this sounds simple, unfortunately it’s not really that easy. As other have learned, EDID and voltage/current issues have plagued many products.”
Earlier this fall Metra introduced a number of new copper and fiber products in San Diego at CEDIA 2017. McCall says that once products are announced and shipping the development process doesn’t stop.
He says once products are shipping, Metra solicits feedback from dealers so it can make revisions if necessary. According to McCall with its latest copper product the company made three revisions to its original design, and Metra’s philosophy is to be dynamic and evolve its products as needed. As a company he emphasizes that Metra never considers a product fully developed.
Looking ahead, Metra has already begun work on meeting the specifications announced as part of the HDMI 2.1 protocol.
“Of course the CES [Consumer Electronics Show] 2017 announcement of 48/24 [HDMI 2.1] caused a slight alteration in development. Fortunately for Metra Home Theater Group, this was a minor challenge as our testing had indicated that we could already support 50Gbps. The real challenge will continue to be the same distance. Simply put, distance and bandwidth are inversely proportional. This is where we are currently focusing our research and development.”
Fiber vs Cabling in Other Applications
Unlike other technologies such as AV over IP, which is also growing quickly, fiber, through its combination of bandwidth and value, enables integrators to spec the solutions in a variety of jobs.
Validating fiber’s applicability, Bob Michaels, CEO of ZeeVee, a video distribution company, says the improvements made to fiber cabling are fueling the products’ use in an increasing range of installations.
“The advances in fiber over the last several years in terms of durability have improved tremendously,” says Michaels. “I think anybody considering putting in a network 10Gbps or above—which you should probably be considering anyway—should absolutely be considering fiber.”
Taking a long-term view of fiber and its applicability in the world of AV, Michaels says the ever-increasing burden that technological advances are putting on infrastructure systems is not only dictating fiber’s use now, but also as a solution for whatever comes next.
“When you think about the bandwidth requirements for fiber vs cabling continuing to increase, you wonder how big that cable is going to get,” wonders Michaels. “When you put in that fiber infrastructure it’s there and remains constant. So you are kind of future proofing.”
An additional benefit to working with fiber over other types of cabling solutions is that it is easy to work with, according to Dennis Jaques, owner, system designer, Maverick Integration.
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Jaques says that because fiber is light and flexible, you can pull long cable runs without using repeaters. He also states that fiber is more reliable and his company, which offers services in the commercial and residential markets has been using fiber between network switches for five or six years without encountering any issues.
“We monitor all of our jobs, and we would get instantaneous warnings,” notes Jaques. “Whereas we had tons of problems with the shielded termination from Cat-6. We’ve had significant issues with termination on products, but never with the LC or SC connectors from fiber.”
Supporting McCall’s point concerning the evolving HDMI standards, Jaques emphasizes that fiber also benefits his company through the bandwidth and distance capabilities the cabling offers.
“Fiber is phenomenal for high-speed connectivity and visuals. Look at video. How is someone taking a video distribution matrix and going 200 feet and keeping HDR [high dynamic range]? I don’t know how you do it. You can do it at a short distance, maybe 60 feet, but you’re already at the limit of the category cable wire. Fiber … no problem.”
Citing his company’s residential work, Jaques points out that HDMI’s new 2.1 specification provides clarification for utilizing various cable types, and because of the upcoming format’s appetite for bandwidth to support technologies like 4K with HDR and 8K, these resolutions are going to necessitate the use of fiber.
Providing some guidance on how to handle the next couple of years, McCall adds that ultimately the customer will define what cable type is used based on their preferences.
“When it comes to Fiber vs Cabling, what to use should be determined by the customer’s desires in performance, their budget, distance and future requirements,” comments McCall.
“Higher budget projects requiring longer distances and high-speed connectivity should consider using fiber, while budget-conscious projects should consider using copper HDMI. For even shorter runs where the client will want to upgrade to higher bandwidth content in the future, high-quality passive copper HDMI cables are recommended. To prepare for changes in the future, the most reliable solution still calls for quality passive HDMI cables.”
“We just don’t know what is in the future, but it could make electronics in the active cables ineffective. If you terminate your own electronics, it’s possible new terminations still may not work past 18Gbps. For many, access to content at a bandwidth higher than 18Gbps is not likely in the near future, so we recommend discussing passive, active and fiber solutions with your client before making a decision.”