Published on November 23, 2017

Test analytics to future-proof fiber network rollout

Previously published on Light Reading

Whether it's BT promising to extend all-fiber networks to around 2 million UK premises by 2020, NOS building out FTTH to 2.6 million premises in Portugal, or Vodafone investing €2 billion (US$2.3 billion) in German fiber, the proverbial "insatiable demand for bandwidth" is driving service providers worldwide to extend the coverage of their optical networks (FTTx, FTTA, FTTP, Remote PHY etc.) and increase their speeds. This isn't just a European phenomenon of course. In the US, AT&T, CenturyLink and several Tier 2 operators have recently announced an expansion of their FTTH footprints and Verizon has resumed its FTTH construction. And in Australia, wholesale operator National Broadband Network continues with its politically charged deployments of FTTN, HFC and FTTH.

To make sure these new network buildouts go smoothly, operators create highly detailed methods and procedures (M&P) documents which specify how to test their physical layer assets as they roll out new fiber links. Tests are required to prevent common connector issues (e.g. dirty, scratched or damaged fiber endfaces), fiber issues (e.g. macrobends, bad splicing/splittering, excessive optical return loss), or Small Form-factor Pluggable issues (e.g. faulty or wrong SFP type). However, given that network construction is usually outsourced to contractors, it can be challenging for network owners to keep track of the deployment of new outside plant and its conformance with their specifications.

While contractors say their technicians complete jobs effectively and accurately, it is hard for network owners to be certain that all tests were performed in accordance with the M&Ps. Although contractors submit reams of test-result documents to prove that they have correctly tested the fiber installation (and hence get paid), most closeout packages (design layouts, photos and test results in tables or PDF format) are not reviewed in their entirety by network operators. Given the large quantity of unstructured information, network operators are often only able to spot check for compliance and quality.

The analysis of these spot checks is usually spreadsheet-based, with project managers wasting a lot of time trying to understand why deployments are delayed. This calls for a more automated process for collecting and analyzing test results. The results could then be shared between the network operator and its contractors to better manage the compliance, design quality, contractor efficiency and progress of fiber deployments.

The GIGO principle applies, of course, so ideally the network owner should insist that all contractors use the same reporting tool for consistency. This will make it easier to see which contractors are performing well so that they can be allocated a greater share of future contracts.

Test-based data analytics should also provide metrics at a technician level such as jobs completed per selected period (days, weeks, months), jobs completed right first time, and the average number of repeated tests per test point. This can allow the contractor to better measure their own workforce performance and identify any gaps or training needs. It also enables the management team to identify key trends, such as the most common source of turn-up failure, and the most time-consuming and repetitive tasks.

Although we are still in the early innings of fiber rollouts globally, fiber-savvy technicians are in short supply and they aren't getting any younger. While new recruits can be trained, ideally we want to put a test tool in their hands that simplifies test procedures and fast-track reporting. Automated test procedures (delivered digitally, direct to the tool or smart device) not only make the field technician's life easier, but also makes him also more efficient while collecting higher-quality data.

Thorough testing during construction is key to avoiding costly deployment delays and future service outages. Post-test analytics provide a feedback loop to the network roll-out managers and contractors to enable them to improve their efficiency and the quality of their work. It is important that these results are delivered to the network owner rapidly to ensure problems can be fixed before a contractor has left site.

The network owner should also be able to see aggregate results for a geographic region, a specific contractor, or a particular equipment vendor or model. Without this granularity, problems with a particular contractor or equipment type might go unnoticed for months, leading to expensive remedial work or even service outages. Network operators need to ensure the fiber they lay today will deliver the bandwidth demands of the future. In residential broadband, operators are moving from GigE to 10GE speeds while in datacenter interconnect speeds of 100 Gbit/s are being targeted. Getting first-time-right fiber deployment will ensure these network investments are future proof.