Fiber optics – Careers in the New Technologies

Mike Stanton

In 1880, 4 years after his invention of the telephone, alexander Graham Bell patented a device which he called the photophone. The instrument used light energy to transmit communications. Although Bell thought this to be his greater invention, the success of the telephone overshadowed his light phone and he later abandoned his idea. But his vision was far reaching. As we enter what many call the Information Age, new technologies will be lighting our way. One of the brightest of these is fiber optics, a branch of the field of optics, which is the study of the generation, propagation, and manipulation of light. Fiber optics uses light or photonic energy to convey voice, video, and data transmissions through hair-thin glass fibers. More information on this technology appears in the accompany box.

We are becoming an information-oriented society. Computer networks generate ever-increasing amounts of information, so much information that today’s transmission modes–copper and coaxial cables–are quickly reaching their limits. This bottleneck can be broken, however. Beams of laser light coursing through optical fibers of the purset glass can transmit many times more information than the present communications systems.

Fiber optics offers significant advantages over current transmission technologies. Chief among these is the large band width or carrying capacity available. Pair of optical fibers has the capacity to carry more than 10,000 times as many signals as conventional copper cable. This means that a 1/2″ optical cable can carry as much information as a copper cable as thick as a person’s arm. The weight of an optical fiber is approximately 1 percent that of its copper equivalent, making it easier to handle and install. It is immune to electromagnetic and noise interference, which allows for a cleaner, clearer signal. It is also intrusion or tap proof.

Not only does fiber optics produce a better signal, the signal travels farther as well. All communications signals experience a loss of power, or attenuation, as they move along a cable. This power loss necessitates the placement of repeaters at one- or two-mile intervals of copper cable in order to regenerate the signal. With fiber, repeaters are necessary about every 30 or 40 miles, and this distance is increasing with every generation of fiber.


Fiber optics is a young technology. Dr. William Culver, president of Optelecom, Inc., a Washington, D.C. area company that designs and manufactures optical telecommunications equipment, says, “The potential is incredible, but we don’t even know many of its uses yet.” Applications are likely wherever copper cable is now used, and they are possible in many other fields.

At present, the principal user of fiber optic technology is the telecommunications industry, primarily in long-distance or trunkline systems. Many such systems are in operation or under construction. By the end of this year, a 780-mile system will stretch along the Northeast corridor from Boston to Richmond. A counterpart installation, the Pacific Fiber Optics project, running about 560 miles from Sacramento to Los Angeles, is also under construction. The largest project in North America has been undertaken by our neighbor to the north; Saskatchewan Telecommunications is nearing completion of a 2,000-mile system that will carry not only voice and data transmissions but television signals as well.

This video transmission capability provides a clue to another major user of fiber optics–cable television systems. Some cable companies are beginning to install optical systems, again because of the advantages they offer over conventional transmission media–greater signal capacity, minimal interference, and low maintenance. The standard 3/4″ cable used to transmit television signals handles 40 channels; optical fiber is capable of transmitting more than 160.

A possible major application of fiber optics is in business information systems or local area networks. Local area networks are essential in intergrating the functions within an office or factory because of their ability to provide simultaneous data, voice, and video transmissions. Optical fiber will be able to handle these systems with more speed and less interference than the present copper cable.

Within the transportation industries, the use of fiber optics is increasing. For example, some rail lines now use optical switching systems. The automotive industry is also utilizing the technology. Here in the United States, manufacturers use fibers to light instrumentation panels, while in Japan an experimental fibered car is being tested. The aerospace industry is conducting similar tests. Replacement of present wiring with optical components would reduce weight and lower fuel costs.

All these applications basically involve replacing copper wire with glass fiber. But applications are also possible in completely different areas. Research is being conducted in the use of fiber optics as sensing devices. The use of fiber optic instrumentation in medicine is becoming more frequent. Acting, in essence, as tiny cameras, optical fibers can be inserted into the body and relay an image to an outside screen. Fiber optic sensors, capable of monitoring temperature and liquid levels, are on the market. In robotics, fiber optic “eyes” enable robots to see as they perform their tasks.

Implications: Current Workers

The effect fiber optics will have on the labor force is difficult to predict. While the theoretical groundwork is firmly established, many of those intimately involved with its development can only speculate as to its future implications for workers and their jobs. As Irving Kahn, of General Optronics, a New Jersey firm that manufactures fiber optical instrumentation, says, “In the very near future, there will be ways of doing things that simply do not exist today.” That new skills will be required of our workers is unquestionable. And some impact will undoubtedly be felt by telecommunications workers employed in the installation and maintenance of copper cable.

Stephen Confer, director of employment programs for the Communications Workers of America, a labor organization that represents many cable installers and splicers, views the prospect with some workers,” he says, “and should be able to make the transition to the new technologies with retraining.” But, he adds, the lightweight optical fiber is easier to handle, requires less maintenance, transmits more information, and does it more efficiently than copper. In the long term, Confer believes, it is possible that fewer of these workers will be needed to install fiber.

A more sanguine view is taken by Kenneth Edwards, director of Skill Improvement Training for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Edwards notes that companies have a tremendous capital investment in the present cabling that precludes any rapid changeover to fiber optics. Copper is still very much in use, he says, and the fiber systems presently being installed represent only a very small percentage of new “We urge our members not to become too specialized and stress that continuing education is the best assurance for future employment.”

Retraining of cable installers and splicers has already begun in some areas. Southern New England Telephone, in cooperation with the Connecticut Union of Telephone Workers (CUTW), has instituted retraining installers. George Carlson, a vice president of the union, states that such retraining is essential. “If we don’t get on the bandwagon,” left behind.”

One of those who participated in the training program was Mike Sinisgalli, a splicer affiliated with Local 400 of CUTW. “The applications aren’t difficult,” says Sinisgalli, “they just require a tremendous amount of patience. It’s like splicing two hairs together.” Sinisgalli also points to one difficulty with retraining workers, the dynamic nature of the industry. He and the other participants had spent the week learnining to splice a particular kind of fiber. As they were finishing the course, their instructor told them that the fiber had become obsolete.

Comparing the ways copper and fiber cable are spliced shows why retraining is necessary. To splice copper, small handtools, epoxy, and mechanical equipment are used to twist, solder, and join the wires. In splicing optical cable, the operation is more delicate. Two methods may be used, fusion splicing and mechanical splicing. In fusion splicing, the technician fiber and then cleaves it, leaving a half inch of bare fiber that must be kept from contact with any surface other than the fiber to which it will be fused because even a speck of dust can interfere with the signal. Next, fixture to protect them from wind and vibration. Then an electric current fuses them together. In mechanical splicing, the technician threads the fibers into an optical connector in a process similar to threading a needle. Hand-eye coordination is essential, for the average diameter of an optical cable is around two thousandths of an inch, making it about as fine as a hair on a baby’s head.

Another problem that may impede the early development of a uniform training program for technicians is the lack of standardization. As long as this condition persists, retraining is likely to remain at its present level. Training is generally conducted by manufacturings who orient it to their specific products, a situation similar to that in the computer field 20 years ago. One such program is offered at the American Telephone and Telegraph (ATT) Technical Training Center in Dublin, Ohio. John Markstein, director of the center, says that “all of our students are craft workers with good mechanical skills, so retraining presents no difficulties.” The ATT program has run for 3 years, and approximately 500 technicians per year have participated in the 5-day course. Participants receive some initial instruction in fiber optic theory followed by practical experience in the grinding, polishing, and splicing of optical fibers. While the technology is new and different, Markstein, like Sinisgalli, emphasizes that basic skills and patience are necessary for the worker to master the new techniques.

Implications: New Workers

Dr. William Troxler, president of the Capitol Institute of Technology in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Laurel, Md., separates the work force associated with fiber optics into two segments, creational and craft. In the former, he includes people who hold college degrees in optics, electrical engineering, or physics. The craft workers install and maintain fiber optical systems. In the future, demand for both kinds of workers will increase.

The results of an informal survey of fiber optic cable and instrumentation manufacturers conducted by Lightwave, The Journal of Fiber Optics, indicates that there is a shortage of trained fiber optical personnel. The survey concentrated on those positions that generally require a bachelor’s or graduate degree. Stanley Schindler, president of Dunhill of Framingham, a Natick, Mass., firm that specializes in the recruitment of optics personnel, says, “Companies are looking for good, hands-on circuit designers with several years of fiber experience. . . . There are not enough of them.” In view of the shortages, companies are hiring people with a strong background in electronics or computers. Once on the staff, new personnel receive some in-house training or attend one of the several short courses in fiber technology now being offered by a number of universities.

David Duke, general manager for telecommunictions products at Corning Glass Works and an early researcher in fiber optic technology, says that the industry is searching for technically sophisticated personnel with a firm grounding in the basic sciences. Recommended courses of study would be in electrical engineering, physis, or optics. Only one university in the country offers a bachelor’s degree in optics, the University of Rochester. A number of other universities, such as Georgia Tech and the University of Arizona, offer clusters of optics courses. These courses are included in either the electrical engineering or physis departments.

Industry sources believe that electronics technicians with some training in fiber optics will find jobs awaiting them in the industry. Many of these technicians will have to be supplied by the Nation’s technical schools and community colleges.

Dr. John Simcik is the director of the program in electro-optics at Texas State Technical Institute in Waco and also conducts short courses in fiber optic technology for the scientists and engineers at the national laboratories of Los Alamos and Livermore. “Fiber optic applications are relatively simple at present,” says Simcik. “But as the technology matures it will require personnel with increasingly sophisticated expertise.” Technical schools and community colleges will have to address this issue, but the dynamic nature of the industry and the exceedingly expensive instruments necessary to train personnel may make the job difficult.

Job possibilities in fiber optics may also be available for electricians. It is important to remember that fiber optics is a transmission technology. George O’Mara, president of Fiber Optic Communications Specialists, of Sturbridge, Mass., believes that much of the internal wiring in future construction will be done with fiber optical components.

Long-distance telecommunications is pushing the industry as a whole, says O’Mara. But as the technology matures and as more people become aware of its advantages, there will be a growing use of fiber in a single building or group of buildings, particularly in local area networks. Much of this work could be assumed by local electrical contractors, with proper training, says O’Mara. But they will require new skills, which will enable them to install and maintain not only the optical fiber but the semiconductor components as well.

A variety of market analysts foresee dramatic increases in sales in fiber optic cable and instrumentation in the next decade. Kessler Marketing Intelligence in Newport, Rhode Island, predicts an increase in sales from $300 million in 1983 to $1.4 billion in 1989 in the United States alone. The increase, says John Kessler, should spur “the creation of many new positions in such ancillary jobs as production of cable splicing equipment, optical connectors, detectors, and receivers.”

What new occupations or occupational titles will emerge as a result of these new technologies is a “crystal ball” question, but new and interesting challenges will be available for those with skills, training, and the desire to confront them. The future may be very bright indeed. And that is no optical illusion.

COPYRIGHT 1984 U.S. Government Printing Office

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group