Fiber is what enables us to communicate on campus. For many of us, that’s where our understanding of fiber-optic cable ends.
Fiber, for the record, is what digital data travels through in the form of pulses of light.
Essential, like air
Also, while we realize fiber is actual, tangible cable that people install, move and fix, few of us really think about it. It’s more like air–essential to our modern lives, but something nebulous that’s out there somewhere, quietly serving its purpose.
Chad Ray and his UNC-Chapel Hill Information Technology Services team members, who do all the heavy lifting with Carolina’s fiber, are a lot like that too. Ray, the Transport Operations Manager for ITS, and this team are responsible for installing and maintaining of all of the University’s transport cable. Data, video and voice, now that the campus has transitioned over to Voice-over-Internet Protocol, all travel over fiber.
Much time spent in manholes
The Transport Operations guys–all 14 of the technicians happen to be men–don hard hats and safety harnesses before squeezing down into the muddy, buggy manholes to pull fiber. They also can be found here and there on campus inside their expensive splice truck, hunched over, wearing safety glasses and focused on the delicate and potentially dangerous task of splicing fibers.
“Fiber is basically glass, and it breaks in shards and it’s very sharp when it comes off,” Ray said. “If you get it stuck in your fingers or hands, you can’t take a pair of tweezers and pull it out because it breaks off. I can tell you from experience getting it into my hands, it is very painful.”
Every campus building uses fiber
UNC-Chapel Hill has an estimated 100,000 feet of fiber-optic cable. Every building on campus has some fiber. The University’s biggest fiber bundle is 288 fibers in one cable, the longest run is about 12,000 feet, spanning Davie Hall to the Giles Horney building. The core of a fiber measures a mere nine microns. In fact, each strand of glass is about the size of a human hair.
“It’s all mostly underground in a manhole system between the buildings and no one really sees it unless you go in the manholes,” Ray said.
When they’re installing fiber, the Transport Operations technicians sometimes have to stop and cut it and re-splice it because the fiber gets quite heavy, especially when they are pulling it through pipe and across spans between manholes.
Challenge getting fiber where it needs to go
The group faces a variety of challenges when installing fiber.
“Design is the biggest thing; we have to figure out the best way to get to where we need to be at,” Ray said. “A lot of times that is our biggest challenge because the manhole system may not go by where we need to go to and it may not come from where we need to come from.”
Another big challenge, he said, “is actually getting into the manholes and pulling fiber through the manholes to the next one and getting it into the building.”
The Transport Operations technicians’ fiber work is never done. Installing and maintaining fiber is an ongoing process. “If somebody goes into a building and renovates it, we have to pull the fiber out and put it back in,” Ray said.
In the video above, watch the team install fiber at the Hill Hall renovation.