This article first appeared in April of 2018. How prescient! Fiber is all the rage today.
The idea has been around since the middle of the 19th century and by mid-20th century fiber optics began to find viable commercial applications. Thankfully it only took another 50 years for fiber to earn its place in our world of residential technology.
Fiber optic cable in any practical form for the residential technology trade represents a high performance experience with a long runway before being superseded. Long regarded as complex and expensive, today we see fiber beyond these characteristics. Fiber is not inexpensive and nor should it be. The process to manufacture fiber is costly and precision and consistency is critical. Fiber is complex in that it requires advanced transmission and receiving devices with precision connectors and an exacting procedure for preparing and terminating its tiny, magical conductors.
However, today we know fiber is valuable and we are learning how to cope with the precision requirements for its successful deployment. It’s been too easy for technicians to continue to design and pre-wire systems with various grades of copper cabling to meet the needs of a residential integrated system. For years, CAT5e got the job done, albeit inconsistently due to a lack of consistency in quality of product and questionable performance specs and safety certifications that put installers at risk. Properly manufactured CAT6, CAT6A and now CAT7 cables surely improve system performance yet we are now recognizing the fact that increasing bandwidth demands over these cables are rapidly challenging their capacity.
Ultra High Definition video is the instigator here and fortunately, adaptable fiber optic solutions have become available. In recent years several manufacturers have introduced a range of fiber solutions that when viewed as a whole, can address just about any situation where fiber is the way to go. Yay!
HDMI, with its highly complex structure has been the primary interface technology for fiber. This began in earnest during the HDMI 1.3 era of 2006-2008, with the FCC’s analog sunset deadline of 2009 approaching, created a rapid growth of “HD” content, source and display components to meet the new era of broadcasting experience. Our industry’s technicians still needed to create distributed video networks and quickly learned of copper cable limitations. As to be expected for our industry, many installers improvised solutions based on either a combination of their knowledge and various products. Sometimes this worked. Early pioneering manufacturers offered products that were said to support distributed HD video. Sometimes this worked.
In 2009 HDMI released its 1.4a spec with support for 4Kx2K resolution and thus began a new generation of manufacturers possessing expertise in not only video but with optical signal transmission and highly advanced codecs. In 2013 HDMI 2.0 arrived to support the forthcoming “4K UHD” era in which we now live. It is with HDMI 2.0 that support of 4K @60Hz and 4:4:4 color commenced, requiring the “holy grail of 18Gbps.” The arrival of “UHD” and performance upgrades such as higher frame rate and color sampling pushed the need for something more advanced than copper. This became more relevant as HDMI 2.0a and 2.0b were released with support for HDR and a host of other advancements.
Bulk fiber optic cable is rising in prominence from leading cable suppliers while numerous specialty manufacturers are offering fiber optic cables dedicated to long distance HDMI applications. Bulk fiber transmitters and receivers and more efficient fiber termination tools are being offered and high performance video component manufacturers are beginning to strongly recommend a fiber interface between “source and sink” components. It’s a beautiful thing for our profession and while they may not know it yet, for our end users too. Professional installers should be talking with their customers about fiber now and always.
Fiber had finally met its mate. It should be a long and bright future and one our installation professionals should be confident to embrace.