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Klaus vom Hofe

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Network planners in rush for fiber-optics

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When Deutsche Telekom lays fiber-optical cable to its customers’ doorsteps, the job needs very precise planning. Wladimir Bolt is one of the many technicians who draw up such plans. He invited us to look over his shoulder as he worked.

Everything revolves around fiber-optics

Everything revolves around fiber-optics. Wladimir Bolt sets out how the cables are to be laid.

Cables as thick as your forearm with up to 2,000 copper wire pairs, cut through cleanly into lengths of a couple of meters and left in containers for disposal: anyone who goes through the steel gates and makes their way across the parking lot into the Technical Infrastructure Production (PTI) building in Lohfelden near Kassel is bound to notice them as they pass by. They will also see giant spools of empty tubing up to three meters tall for use in extending the fiber-optical network. And beside them will be the smaller spools of the fiber-optic cables themselves for use in extending the network to customers’ homes. The overall picture is almost symbolic.

Copper has had its day ...

Copper has had its day ...

The redbrick building is where Bolt does his daily work. A fiber-optic cabling planner, he shares his office with seven colleagues. And they all share the Italian coffee machine that takes care of creature comforts from its spot beside the table around which Bolt and his colleagues take their breaks. Bolt’s job is to plan the information superhighways to customers’ homes. But he does not make his plans for the catchment area around the PTI building at Lohfelden, unlike some of his colleagues working at the location. Bolt’s planning area is more than 250 kilometers away in the Main-Tauber district of Baden-Württemberg. “A year ago, the decision was made that Deutsche Telekom should lay the cabling, and pretty soon the starting gun was fired on a new effort to extend fiber-optic cabling into the homes, schools and businesses of the district” explains the 27-year-old, who first arrived at Deutsche Telekom in 2009 as a trainee IT systems business administrator.

Fiber-optics are the future.

... Fiber-optics are the future. The colleagues in Lohfelden have built a model for FTTH. They use it, for example, to show employees of excavation companies what the branch cable to private houses looks like and how it should be laid. The cube contains a device that can be used to locate the cable conduit after it had been laid and the trench has been filled in.

Just like many of his colleagues, Bolt puts everything into motion to ensure that fiber-optic cabling is laid closer to people’s homes and workplaces on schedule, often even right up to their front door. Deutsche Telekom is directly connecting 84 schools and educational facilities alone. The plan is to provide about 98% of households and businesses in the roll-out area with bandwidths of at least 50 Mbit/s. To attain that goal, technicians are laying 790 kilometers of fiber-optic cables and are installing up to 70 additional cable distribution boxes – some via public subsidy and some at its own cost. Some of these cables will be going all the way into private homes (FTTH; fiber to the home), and some as far as to the street cabinets (FTTC; fiber to the curb), using vectoring to get the network the last leg of the journey. The job covers the whole mix and adds up to a major undertaking. To get their jobs done, on-site technicians need the support of a lot of colleagues located far away.

Beavers and bore holes and decisions, decisions 

Cabling planners like Bolt drill down deep into very detail. Starting from the exchanges, he uses maps and systems such as Megaplan to get a feel for the lie of the land. He uses this information to decide how to thread the fiber-optic cables all the way to the customer. He draws out new routes to avoid such obstacles as railway lines. He also has to do research to find out what empty pipelines are available for use and what cable laying methods are most suitable and economical for each terrain – whether to choose trenching, wash boring, plow laying or excavation. Bolt identifies where new multifunctional cabinets need to be built. And where the technicians can connect up with existing optical fibers – that is where they position multifunctional cabinets over conventional cable distribution boxes. For his work he uses the geo-mapping street images on stretches of road where Google car has taken photos. This means he can see on his monitor whether the location is suitable – for example if the sidewalk is broad enough or if the new “gray box” poses a problem in any other way. In short, planners like Bolt have to think anew for every new locality, weighing up all the construction options available from an economic point of view.

What then follows is referred to by the technicians as “securing the route” or “securing the location”. Bolt gets planning permission for the routes and cable distribution boxes from local authorities. Environmental authorities often become involved if the work is planned for a greenfield site. The planners clarify in advance with local engineering services whether the roll-out might potentially disturb flora and fauna, such as wild orchids, beavers and sand lizards. Specialists then prepare expert opinions for the planning authorities. Only when the authorities have issued their approval can the diggers begin their work.

Whether the aim is FTTH or FTTC – you can see that Bolt likes to do all aspects of his work on his own responsibility, dealing directly with construction engineers and sub-contractors in the faraway Main-Tauber district. “Planners like us always need to be aware our plans determine how and where streets get dug up.

He clears up discrepancies with his colleagues: “Does a tank transfer station really need to be connected using a fiber-optic cable?” The answer to his query turns out to involve a special request of the local authority: the property affected is a “former” tank transfer station still marked on the map under its old name. “That’s a running gag for us”, says Bolt with a chuckle. When everything is fully planned, he enters in the SAP system everything that needs to be ordered and installed according to his plan: about 20 different components in any number of different quantities, from finger-length connection pieces, through fiber-optic cable and sleeves all the way to the appropriate Speednet conduits. 

But the planning work being done by Bolt at the moment is likely to change in the foreseeable future. Because the demand for FTTH is set to jump dramatically. “The technicians are preparing themselves for the change using what has been dubbed the FTTH Factory, designed to automate planning processes. The goal is to develop networks further and more efficiently with all colleagues on board. Bolt is well aware of the build-out pace and is relaxed about the changes coming down the line. “I find the idea of the FTTH factory fascinating. And services to coordinate people’s activities are always useful”, says Bolt, who is also studying in his spare time for a Bachelor degree in business and management. One thing he is sure about is that “the extension of the fiber-optic network is a massive, ground-breaking project for the future. I’m proud to be part of it.”

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