When people discover that I work in telecommunications, helping some of the biggest fiber optic projects around the world, they invariably ask me why the projects are much harder than expected.
That got me thinking, what is it about the fiber projects that makes them so hard, and are they unique?
I’ve spoken before about the inherent complexity of the network and the tens of thousands of elements that connect a suburb, but here I want to talk about the project.
I think all engineering projects have their challenges, but what sets fiber apart is that it shares complexity across numerous engineering disciplines.
Each street is the same but different – Automotive process engineering
Just like manufacturing a car, the building of the network requires repetition of activities in each suburb or street, however there are differences in each. Just like a customer may order leather seats or some other option on a car that is otherwise identical to the next one on the line, each fiber area will be assembled with the same equipment but differ. One may have a university that requires special handling, or a major road that will be difficult to build across, or a new development with multiple entrances. Each will require variation that must be decided in consultation with several experts, and then tracked to completion.
Working with the public – Road engineering
Car manufacturing occurs in the controlled environment of a factory, whereas fiber projects occur in the public space. So in that sense fiber projects share many challenges with a road project. Wherever the network is to be constructed, residents need to be informed, traffic control implemented and various permits for acquired. But unlike a road, the fiber has to be built into each house, requiring coordination with each private land-owner.
Not knowing what will be found when digging down – Civil engineering
While the network is fiber, the bulk of the activities, and source of project risk, is in the ‘civils’. Where a network is installed underground, new conduit must be laid either by trenching or boring. In either case it requires digging through ground. While you may have geologic surveys that tell you the soil type, you never know where the rock that will stall you is.
Progress can’t be seen with our eyes – Wireless engineering
On most civil engineering projects there is ‘line of sight’. Stand in the right place and an experienced manager can gauge the progress of the project. The frame to 10th floor is complete, or the bridge footings are in place. A fiber project is distributed and either underground or, if done well, unobtrusive. A manager is entirely reliant on data to gauge the progress of the project. There is no easy source for gut feel. In this sense it like a wireless network where you are reliant on accurate data to tell you what can’t be seen.
Tie it all together virtually – Network/software engineering
Which leads to the last challenge. The physical network is operated virtually. So accurate records have to be mapped to software that manages customers, billing and the data traffic. And this needs to be ready when the wireless, civil, road, and process engineering challenges are sorted.
As you can see, while the goal of the project is to get an 8 micrometer strand of glass to each house (and then shoot light down it), there is plenty of complexity to be addressed.
I’m sure each engineering project is hard, but it seems this combination for fiber projects makes them unique. I take my hat off to the folks who coordinate all this.