Navigating the pros and cons of aerial and underground fibre infrastructure
There is no disputing the fact that the Covid-19 Coronavirus pandemic has sparked the biggest work-from-home movement in modern history. If you compare our communications capabilities to that of the world during the 1918 influenza pandemic, today we’re spoiled with communication channels and connectivity options to enable remote working so that we can remain operational while staying home. The pandemic has also highlighted the educational and entertainment benefits of having a high-speed internet connection at home.
Our growing need for and reliance on connectivity for almost every facet of our business and personal lives stresses the importance of reliable access to the internet, which is fast approaching the status of a human right. It is undeniable that high-speed, reliable and affordable Internet access is critical. Throughout South Africa, providers are rolling out fibre at rapid rates across the country, in a highly competitive market.
As employers and individuals experience significantly higher productivity levels than before, it may well be that our new normal becomes a long-term feature of our lives, making the emphasis on tomorrow’s bandwidth demands more pertinent than ever before.
Fibre to the rescue
An optical fibre network is considered fundamental for all homes when it comes to scalable, secure and cost-effective transmission of large volumes of data. It has certainly become the de facto standard for these trying times when businesses need to stay connected to employees and customers who are staying and working from home. Throw home schooling and keeping your family entertained while cooped up in the mix, and you realise just how fundamental the internet, and connectivity is in our daily lives.
The quality of a fibre connection hinges on its speed and reliable infrastructure, which requires careful planning and a high level of installation expertise and capacity. Costs, time constraints, existing infrastructure and services also play a role. When rolling out fibre infrastructure, Fibre Network Operators (FNOs) normally use two installation methods:
- Aerial – above ground on poles.
- Underground – through ducts/conduits.
In some cases, a combination of the two methods must be used.
Pros and Cons of Aerial and Underground Deployment
Cost and reliability are two crucial factors when it comes to choosing between an aerial or underground approach to fibre installation.
Aerial cables are preferred and a cost-effective solution in rural or low-density areas, especially if existing pole infrastructure can be used. However, in most instances such poles need to be installed and most private property owners and authorities are not in favour of erecting new poles in the road reserve.
It also comes with many challenges such as time-consuming negotiations with multiple property owners for permission to erect poles on their properties, unrestricted access to the properties for routine and emergency maintenance work which is problematic, while aerial deployments are also exposed to weather hazards and susceptible to damage from vandalism, tree branches, wind, storms, animals and fire – making aerial fibre less reliable. Aerial cable is fragile and it will strain, sag and eventually break when exposed to the elements for an extended time.
While underground deployment has a higher initial increased cost and hassle-factor, it is the preferred method for municipalities and most customers. The cables are buried underground and thus are not susceptible to the elements, it is also more flexible and expandable in the long term which makes it more reliable. Fibre in underground duct solutions are also invisible once installed, so have an aesthetic advantage.
Choosing between aerial and underground fibre is driven by the terrain and surrounding conditions for the fibre installation. Rocky terrain would make trenching and digging underground near impossible in terms of cost, safety and practicality, while digging through concrete structures, foundations and pavements can also be costly, disruptive and impractical.
Current best practice is to install ducts or channels underground in which fibre cables are installed, allowing for easy capacity expansion and maintenance of the cables with little or no disruption to property owners and the surrounds.
From a MetroFibre perspective, reliability and service availability are important factors, so the preference is to go with buried fibre infrastructure as far as possible. While aerial deployment may have a lower deployment cost than buried infrastructure, its total life cycle cost, including support and maintenance, is higher. The reliability of underground fibre means far better service and uptime for our customers, and far less likelihood of breaks in connectivity.