Where's The Fault: My Introduction to "WTF"

One early spring morning I was weaving through traffic, headed to a baseball game.  I was the coach of a team of talented 14 year old boys playing the first game of an early season tournament.  The day before, I had insisted that the boys and their parents be at the game early so we would have plenty of time to prepare.  But now, I was running late.  

As I was nearing the baseball field I received a text message from one of the parents.  It read, “Where are you?  WTF”.  I was not familiar with “WTF”.  I figured this parent must be lost and was asking, “Where’s the Field?”  So, after parking my car, I sent him the address of the field.  But, as I was walking to the field I noticed that same parent standing in front of me.  As I approached, he was chuckling at the message I had sent.  Then, he looked right at me, shook his head and said, “What the #@%&”.

Oh.  That’s what WTF meant.

In the world of fiber optic networks, OTDRs are commonly used to find the distance to a suspected cable break.  In OTDR terminology, a cable break would be referred to as a fault.  So, if you find yourself searching for the location of a cable break operators might ask, “Where’s the fault?”  And so we have another interpretation of WTF.  But, this WTF will require the assistance of good data and a simple to use fiber optic network management system to get found quickly and accurately.

A fundamental feature of a fiber optic network management system is the ability to plug in the distance to a suspected cable break and see the resulting location on a map, thereby answering the WTF question.  It’s as simple as that.  If you maintain a fiber optic network with customers that rely on its performance and you have not invested in such a documentation system, you should re-examine your emergency restoration approach.  If you have invested in such a system and you cannot easily find the location of a cable break, either the software you’re using is insufficient or the data you’ve entered has issues.  Either way, you have work to do.

Why is answering WTF so Important?  Well, the obvious answer is because fibers can break and in order to fix them they have to be found.  You think airline passengers get upset when their luggage is delayed?  That frustration doesn’t compare to how your customers will respond to losing internet connection for a few hours, or longer.  Nor does it compare to the sheer scale of the situation.  When an airline loses luggage, there are maybe a few people that are inconvenienced.  But when the wrong cable breaks, there could be thousands of people trying to figure out why they can’t get email, use Skype, or maybe even connect to a 911 operator.  And, there’s a good chance you’ll read about that broken cable somewhere in the news shortly after.

With that in mind, over the past few weeks I setup a monitor via Google Alerts for any mention in the news of a fiber optic cable break.  In just fifteen days, I’ve had sixteen stories about fiber optic cable breaks show up in my inbox (of course I put them on a map, see below).  Remember, these are just the breaks that made the news.  In that same timeframe, I know of at least one US telco that had nearly that many emergency restoration situations that were not reported in the media.  Add to that the handful of emergency call-outs that our own field crews here at AFO responded to, and I feel safe to suggest that for most network providers, experiencing an outage due to a fiber optic cable break is not a matter of if, but when.

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Moreover, the advantage of having software and data to find a cable break ensures that you have accurate data at the fiber level, and there are multitudes of uses for that beyond the most obvious use of restoring service during an outage.  For example, you can determine the number of lit glass miles for those pesky tax reports.  You can find the fiber capacity within any given cable to make expansion planning easier and more accurate.  You can determine the services riding on each fiber and where those services are routed.  You can easily create splicing configurations, test them, and hand them to the contractor.  These are just a few of the myriad advantages of having accurate data at the fiber level.  It’s like eating spinach; the benefits just keep on coming. 

In fact, having operational data at the fiber level for a fiber optic network should be considered foundational.  Imagine a baseball team whose players don’t throw well or a football team whose players haven’t learned to block.  Those skills are foundational to those sports and if teams don’t excel at those basic skills on a consistent basis they will never be champions and will probably lose more than they will win.  The same is true for fiber optic network providers that don’t have accurate data at the fiber level.  Eventually weakness, especially foundational weakness, will get exposed.

We all hope bad things don’t happen, but when they do, be prepared in order to minimize the impact to your business and customers.  Indeed, for a network provider, the installed fiber optic cables are its most valuable asset.  It costs millions of dollars to install and maintain these assets and a tiny fraction of that expense to document them well enough to be able to find a cable break should one occur.  Besides, if there is a break and your customers find out that you did not have the right system in place to quickly find and repair it, that “WTF” text message you get will probably not be them asking about the location of a baseball field.

Feel free to contact me at randya@advancefiber.com to continue the conversation.  And, if you are looking for a solution for fiber optic network management, check out www.ospinsight.com.