The Future of Fiber

15 Minutes with Cleerline President Robert D’Addario

Fiber optics has been around in audio gear for years. Verizon’s Fiber Optic Service, better known as FiOS, has 7 million Internet subscribers in nine states with plenty of expansion potential. Google, too, has been rolling out its Google fiber service in recent years, though on a much smaller scale with limited service in seven states. Meanwhile, copper is still far and away king of signal transmission both inside and outside of the home. But for how long? To get a sense of what role fiber will play in the future, we sat down with Robert D’ Addario, president of Montana-based Cleerline Technology Group, an innovator in optical cable.

S&V: Let’s start with a brief overview. How long has Cleerline been around and what does it do?
Robert D’Addario: Cleerline Technology Group was founded in 2012 as merger between D'Addario's Planet Waves CI brand and Custom Install Supply out of Missoula, Montana. D'Addario is the world's largest musical instrument accessories manufacturer with close to 400 years of manufacturing experience and legacy; the Planet Waves CI division was launched in 2005 to bring the company’s cable technology to alternative markets beyond the custom installation/CEDIA market it had been servicing. Custom Install Supply was a small parts distributor that served the same market.

Cleerline's business is made up of three brands: Cleerline SSF Fiber Products, Planet Waves CI copper connectivity products, and Custom Install Supply distributed parts. Our primary market remains the residential custom installation but we are expanding rapidly into other markets that need our fiber products, which we believe are the safest, most durable fiber cable solutions on the market.

S&V: Verizon launched its FiOS fiber-optic TV and broadband service in 2005 and in subsequent years rolled it out to 15 metropolitan areas/cities in the Northeast before slowing and, ultimately, suspending the expansion. In April 2016, Verizon started expanding again in Boston. Google offers its Google fiber service in eight cities, mostly in the Southern part of the U.S., has plans to expand in four more cities, and has identified 10 additional cities for potential expansion. What’s the trajectory for the expansion of such fiber-optic services moving forward and how will it be impacted by advances in wireless technology?
RD: Very interesting question, and for the most part we'd be speculating with regard to the details. The reality is that although bandwidth to the home should be a higher priority in the U.S., poor regulation and barriers to entry for improved technologies limit the ability for telecommunications providers to both push the expansion and meet these same needs without inflated costs.

In addition, we have more bandwidth to the home than is currently made available by the providers. Most—probably over two thirds of it—is consumed by providers forcing 1,500 channels down the same pipe, which is one of the biggest differences between Google and Verizon's Fios services. Looking at this on a macro level, the U.S. continues to fall behind in the category of bandwidth to the home, and will continue to fall behind if competition doesn't pick up and drive new technologies into the market to reduce overall deployment costs.

These are complex problems that aren't driven purely by the cost of a foot of fiber cable. Could our product facilitate a lower cost in deployment? Yes, I believe we have solved some core issues. But in general, in a mature market sector like telecommunications deployment, we are faced with competing as a higher value product on the same cost basis as a lower value commodity product. That presents a significant challenge for us. Our product is simply more expensive to produce.

But the cable component of fiber deployment isn't the reason why costs are so high to deploy. Rather, it is the skilled labor, the training and tooling required, and the fact that our native industries have put up barriers to entry where foreign countries have not. One example of this is the mechanical splice connector, being a "fast type" terminating fiber connector. Density within cities and surrounding areas are also an issue; in many Asian communities, fiber to the home is commonplace, but density is much higher there and they've adopted mechanical splice connectors to facilitate 50 percent reductions in tooling costs and installation time. The higher the density, the lower the deployment costs because you can send out one tech to connect hundreds of homes within one structure. The U.S. should be on this same trajectory but presently is not due to these reasons among others.

Wireless is an interesting component of this as well. But the irony of wireless is that the more bandwidth we look to provide, the more cable needs to be deployed. On top of that, wireless and close power distribution could present health concerns as we seek to understand the unknown side effects of ultrahigh frequency wavelengths at high power deployment.

Wireless also continues to experience intermittence issues and, in developed nations such as the U.S., hardwired connectivity is almost always utilized as either the primary method or a backup to advanced microwave or wireless transmission infrastructures to insure stability and up time. Wireless remains a convenience compared to other areas of the world—especially in developing nations where infrastructure is not stable—and it presents a way of distributing connectivity at a lower cost and more rapid rate.

S&V: Cleerline has said we are in the early stages of the “copper sunset,” a scenario you liken to the “analog sunset” witnessed in recent years. Given that copper wire is still used in the vast majority of U.S. homes, and wireless is coming on strong, at what point will copper no longer be sufficient to handle the needs of a typical family? In other words, how long before your “copper sunset” scenario really comes to the forefront?
RD: The “copper sunset” is not necessarily in the same vain as the analog one we saw just seven years ago, with the transition from component video (analog transmission) to HDMI (digital transmission). It is more akin to the gradual progression of bandwidth requirements and cable deployment in the home. In the 80’s we had RG59 coax, and then RG6, which were RF coax cables. When HD became the norm in the 2000’s, we graduated to more sophisticated copper solutions such as RG6Quad and SDI Coax. As HDMI took hold and digital transmission became the norm, we moved to Cat5e, Cat6, Cat6a, Cat7, and now Cat8 is on the horizon.

All of these solutions have their strengths and weaknesses and the AV community has been pushing the newest version each time to insure they will be able to support the next round of technology. But the number of cables coming out of the wall in a large installation has reached an unbelievable level; fiber will help reduce that substantially and provide an infrastructure that can be utilized for a much longer period.

Looking at the "typical" family home is also a complicated scenario; for starters, what is "typical?" If it’s a three bedroom 2,000-square-foot bedroom suburban home, it really depends on how the technology is set up. If the preference is to hide the components in a closet or piece of furniture away from the TV, anything further than 15 feet is going to require some form of fiber to move the latest generation video content (4k2k 60 Hz 4:4:4 HDR), and that length will probably get cut in half by the next round of technology.

So there is one element of the copper sunset: It simply cannot reliably carry Ultra HD signals greater than 4 meters (13 feet), and we haven't seen an 18Gps wireless system hit the market yet.

But it's also important to point out that we're talking about the bleeding edge—we're on the forefront. If we travel back in time we’ll recall that the original flat screen HDTVs cost $20,000 apiece and there was no content. I remember watching the Philips commercial where a bunch of young adults in a small apartment carry in a flat screen TV to hang on the wall and sit down on a couch 8 feet from it. We all laughed at that possibility and said, “Yeah, sure…as if they can afford that TV.” Now we can buy a 65-inch flat screen for less than $1,000.

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