Shining a light on dark fibre

A term widely used in technology circles, ‘dark fibre’ has been attracting mainstream media attention of late following a number business developments, including the recently announced commercial agreements between Vodafone and TPG Telecom, carrying a combined value of more than $1 billion.

So, given the current interest in and big dollars being attracted by this technology, what exactly is dark fibre and what purpose does it serve?

In very basic terms, dark fibre is unlit fibre optic cable. Information technology and research company Gartner defines it as: “Fibre optic cable deployments that are not yet being used to carry network traffic.” (Gartner additionally notes that “’dark’ refers to the fact that no light is passing through the optical fibres.)

So, what is dark fibre’s purpose if it is not in use? Putting the purpose and evolution of dark fibre into context, it may first help to provide a bit of background on the use of fibre optic cable in Australia.

The age of fibre optics is upon us

The wide-scale deployment of fibre optic cable is currently being undertaken across the country as part of the rollout of the multi-technology mix National Broadband Network (NBN), with customers signing on to NBN internet plans being migrated onto the newly installed fibre optic network.

As outlined in the NBN’s corporate plan for 2016, 20 per cent of premises around the country are slated to be connected via fibre-to-the-premises, 38 per cent via fibre-to-the-node and fibre-to-the-basement, 34 per cent via hybrid-fibre coaxial, 5 per cent via fixed wireless and 3 per cent via satellite.

The various pros and cons of these technologies have been the subject of ongoing debate, and certainly the vision of the NBN has changed markedly since its conception, yet fibre optic, to a greater or lesser extent, is a recurring element across all models, and with room for further future expansion, is envisaged to form the backbone of data transmission in Australia for many years to come.

Again drawing on the Gartner IT glossary: “Fibre optics is a high-bandwidth transmission technology that uses light to carry digital information,” offering enhanced capacities over copper. An attraction of fibre optic is that it also has significant upscale capacity.

Gartner further explains: “One fibre telephone cable carries hundreds of thousands of voice circuits. These cables, or light guides, replace conventional coaxial cables and wire pairs. Fibre transmission facilities occupy far less physical volume for an equivalent transmission capacity, which is a major advantage in crowded ducts. Optical fibre is also immune to electrical interference.”

While the NBN is a wholesale-only, open-access network made up of fibre optic along with a variety of other technologies, there are also a number of other companies operating fibre optic networks in Australia – typically referred to as dark fibre, these networks cater to the high-speed transmission requirements of a range of customers across various industries.

So, amid this wide-scale deployment of fibre optic, what is the place of dark fibre?

Time to light up dark fibre?

Australia as a whole is a data-hungry nation, and there is, of course, good commercial rationale behind the creation of fibre optic networks. According to statistics released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in October, a total of 1.389 million terabytes of data was downloaded in the three months ending June 30, with data downloaded via fixed line broadband (1.35 million terabytes, accounting for 97 per cent of all internet downloads) recording a massive 40 per cent increase year-on-year.

There is little reason to think that this will slow any time soon. Amid the growing popularity of data-intensive services such as subscription video-on-demand (such as Netflix, Stan and Presto), and the rollout of increasingly data-intensive technologies such as 4K video, along with an ever-growing ecosystem of connected devices, data demands are poised to keep growing over the long-term.

Of course, it is not just home consumers driving demand, with business requirements also growing. High-speed internet is an increasingly important prerequisite for businesses operating in the global economy, and capable broadband is now a first consideration for companies looking to keep pace with their competitors.

Telcos are keenly aware of this and are currently jostling for preferred position in the new-world fibre optic order: fibre optic cable represents in-demand broadband real estate, and unused dark fibre is potentially real estate of the most valuable type.

Vodafone Chief Executive Officer Iñaki Berroeta noted upon the announcement – that TPG will provide dark fibre and network services to more than 3,000 Vodafone Australia sites over a 15-year term, constructing about 4,000 km of new fibre to Vodafone cell sites across the country – that dark fibre will cater for future demand, describing it as “the next step” in Vodafone’s network evolution.

“For customers, it will mean a higher-performing, 5G-ready network, which will enable exciting future opportunities, such as virtual and augmented reality applications,” Berroeta commented. “Network data traffic will continue to grow through customers’ appetite for mobile content and the emergence of technologies such as the Internet of Things, and a dark fibre network will allow us to cater for future growth.”

It’s with this ever-growing customer demand in mind that companies such as Vodafone are looking to some form of future-proofing of their services, and this in turn has played its part in creating the dark fibre industry.

What are the benefits of dark fibre?

While the practice of laying dark fibre cable has acted as a form of future-proofing (the installation of cable over the course of the process is an expensive exercise and it makes sense to lay more than is actually required), in a business sense the term dark fibre has evolved to now more commonly be used in reference to the leasing of cables for business and personal use.

An industry has evolved around the practice, offering customers a host of benefits over regular fibre optic services. Whereas users of regular fibre optic services share the service with others, dark fibre offers users a service all of their own, effectively putting them in charge of their own network.

When leased, dark fibre cables are not “lit up” by the provider: it is incumbent on the customer to provide the technology to do so in creating their network.

In sole control of their network, dark fibre customers are offered a point-to-point solution, delivering greater certainty and security. For instance, if a company has the requirement to transfer a great deal of secure information from one building to the other at high speed, dark fibre could be a viable option.

As noted by TPG, dark fibre allows customers to build a network “all of their own”, with the capacity of the service limited only by the equipment the user attaches to it. In this respect, the potential of the dark fibre is at the customer’s determination, offering a scalable solution, dependent on requirements and new technologies. Customers can upgrade and replace the equipment at their discretion.

Of course, fibre optic cables will need to be in place to take advantage of the service, and this is where dark fibre providers are each seeking to gain a competitive edge on the other, with new fibre optic networks being rolled out in Australia and throughout the world. Expect to see more extensive services being developed in the near future.

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