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L.110 Lightweight Optical Cable Could Cut Rural FTTH Broadband Rollout Costs

Monday, July 3rd, 2017 (11:36 am) - Score 2,244

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU-T) has granted first-stage approval (‘consent‘) to a new standard called L.110, which specifies a lightweight optical cable that could make it easier and cheaper for communities to roll-out their own FTTH/P ultrafast broadband networks.

At present a lot of the fibre optic cables that network operators deploy tend to require heavy machinery and highly skilled labour, although some UK community schemes like B4RN have already proven that you don’t need highly skilled labour for the entire build. Nevertheless the costs of optical cable installation can in certain cases rise to 70% to 80% of the entire CAPEX of the network.

On top of that this challenge is made even greater by the low densities of rural communities, where fibre deployments demand a disproportionate level of initial capital investment relative to the potential return on such investment. So anything that can bring the price tag down is helpful.

In keeping with that the ITU-T’s Study Group 15 has been designing a new international standard (L.110 – “Optical Fibre Cables for Direct Surface Application“), which is developed within the framework of Recommendation ITU-T L.1700 and “defines the shape of low-cost, terabit-capable optical cable that can be deployed on the ground’s surface with minimal expense and environmental impact.”

ITU-T L.1700 Description

This Supplement identifies a low cost sustainable optical cable solution for potential users of broadband digital services in remote or rural areas who are unlikely to gain such services. The solution would quickly and inclusively close the digital divide which is the key target of ITU Connect 2020 Agenda.

Matured and proven technologies are best integrated into affordable and reliable solutions suitable for non-skilled local people to install, operate, maintain and repair so that the system will become part of the community thus leading to better system maintenance and quicker damage recovery.

Best practice examples use lightweight, thin and robust optical cables and commodity-type media converters. The results of field trials are presented. The cost of such cables with their simple construction are estimated to be down to one tenth of the solution using conventional optical cables.

Apparently the design of the optical cable specified in L.110 “builds on lightweight submarine-cable technology, technology with its first deployments targeted towards lakes and wetlands and other submarine environments less hostile than our oceans“. Cables like this already exist and so we’d question the impact it will have, although telecoms operators certainly do prefer to use cables that follow a solid standard.

The new cable will of course still be waterproof, rodent-proof, highly durable against lateral pressure and fire resistant to a certain extent. The ITU-T envisages that it will enable local communities (i.e. non-skilled local labour) to take part in system deployment (e.g. shallow direct burying, aerial wiring, long-length suspension and even submerged application for changeable terrain), daily operations/maintenance and service provisioning.

The ITU believes that the new cable will be so light that that, as well as making it easier to deploy “shallowly by using hand spades and pickaxes” (depends how you define shallow, too shallow and you leave the cable exposed to damage), you might even be able to use helicopters: “Where cable laying through the ground is difficult, cable laying using a helicopter may be considered as a last resort,” said the ITU-T.

Some examples of the potential cost differences are included in the L.1700 framework, although take note that the full context for these case studies is not provided (every country has different rules, labour costs etc.).

fibre optic deployment cost differences by cable type

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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15 Responses
  1. Steve Jones says:

    I’m inclined to think this is primarily aimed at third world countries which might have higher availability of relatively low cost labour working, perhaps working on community projects. Certainly the example shown (10 people working at less than $10 a person a day) hardly fits a western deployment model. In the case of third world countries, it may be the cost of expensive trenching equipment and more sophisticated ducting that is prohibitive, not that of labour. In western countries, it tends to be the other way around.

    The examples above seem to contrast costs in Bhutan with those that apply in Korea. That’s wildly different and it’s not obvious what a relative cost model might look like in a developed country.

    I note that the “low cost” model uses welded stainless steel ducting, which is a departure from deep-trenched cable which uses plastic ducting. That’s somewhat at odds with the statement that the cable is designed for direct burial or even running along the surface. Welded stainless steel ducting would provide for a much higher level of cable protection than direct burial.

    1. wireless pacman says:

      Depends on whether the duct is welded before or after the cable is run through it! 🙂

    2. MikeW says:

      Maybe it is meant for cable laying in this style:

    3. Steve Jones says:

      @wireless pacman

      I can’t believe it’s welded on site. It would be laborious, and the the internal finish on the joins would surely be rather poor. I suspect it’s like this stuff which is available on coils and drums. Small diameter to be sure, but fairly cheap from about $1 a metre from China. Quite convenient if your are from Bhutan.


    4. Steve Jones says:


      Perhaps somebody should show that video to Clive Selley. He might get some ideas.

      Perhaps it explains why OpenReach have been so keen on recruiting ex-army personnel.

  2. MikeW says:

    That cable-laying video from world war 2 was a little tongue-in-cheek, but there is perhaps a lesson there…

    A group like B4RN could cover a long distance very quickly with surface-based cable, and reach a lot of properties fast … getting coverage out there, and money coming in. Given they already have farmer buy-in, using this as temporary distribution along hedges ought to be straightforward.

    Going back and laying proper ducted cable underground can then be achieved at a more leisurely pace, built around the farmer’s needs.

    It might not be best for the final drop into people’s gardens, though.

    1. Steve Jones says:

      I doubt any organisation would choose surface laying for anything but strictly temporary set-ups. Deploying to premises quickly and then putting in something permanent later would be a real nuisance. However, for things like music festivals, sporting events and so on then I’m sure surface laying is used.

      Hedges would dreadful choice. In most of the rural places I know, farmers trim them every autumn (at least alongside roads) using what looks like a vicious multi-flail device under a semi-circular cover. No cable would stand a chance.

      Something like this (but often larger)


    2. RuralBroadbandSucks says:

      The farmers cust the hedges around here each year, and sometimes the farmers ‘flail cutter’ thingy cuts the telephone cable which takes a week to get fixed.
      On other more stormy years trees fall and take out the phone line. There is still a tree sitting on the main line from AFTER they fixed it last year – BT/KN Networks just reconnected me and a neighbour the box at the pole, and said they are not responsible for the tree.
      There are also loads of trees rubbing on the line along the way back to the cabinet, which I expect will eventually cause me an outage.
      I have also had a few times where they did I was told a box was not sealed properly on the pole and this corroded the connections. That is the worst scenario as I had very poor audio calls on my lines for years, but BT would always ‘run a test’ and there was nothing wrong with them, and they couldnt hear the continual crackling I could clearly hear.
      On other occassions they even ran ‘tests’ and the line was testing fine, and i must commit to pay for an engineer as it must be a problem with my equipment. I have 2 different phone lines (same cable to the house though – different cores used). I went up the road, and there was a BT engineer in van with 2 ends of an overhead cable and about 100 wires who told me it would be a few hours before i would be back online.

    3. Al says:

      The generally put metal covers over the top of the fib down poles in hedges around here to protect them from flails – though as I know in my own case they also sometimes use plastic ones. Quite what legal high the person responsible for that decision is on I have no idea…

  3. Fastman says:

    Perhaps it explains why OpenReach have been so keen on recruiting ex-army personnel or it might be bet there because they are well trained, highly flexible and able to be move quite quickly where there needed to be

    1. Steve Jones says:

      You might just have misunderstood a joke as a serious comment. I’m fully aware why OR favoured ex-military personnel as being disciplined, focussed not to mention generally physically fit outdoor types quite suited to field jobs.

  4. Tim says:

    I don’t get this. If you’re going to lay fibre you might as well do it right in teh first place. After all fibre is going to last a long time, until we have sub-space communication that is 😛

  5. Aled says:

    Is it not easier just to attach these lightweight cables alongside any existing utilities, for example power lines or overhead BT telecom cable wires?

    It gets rather tedious when project engineers and finance experts talk about a £X bn investment plan, when all the locals want is a cheap fibre optic line strapped to existing infrastructure to get to where it is needed. Alternatively you could spend 20 years digging a trench and ducting across the entire UK..

  6. John says:

    Laying fibre by helicopter? How’s that work then?

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