The equipment you choose for your fiber deployment is crucial to whether it succeeds or fails. This is particularly true when it comes to the fiber cable and microduct you use for your fiber to the home (FTTH) installations. What can look perfect in the catalogue and at the planning stage can turn out to be difficult to work with, not up to specification, or to be prone to breakages.
All of this adds to time and labor costs. Multiply the expense by the potentially hundreds of last drop FTTH deployments you are making and it can dramatically impact the profitability and return on investment of your network.
Therefore, for major fiber installations it is good practice to only select a cable and/or microduct after having carried out a field trial, where you see how it works under real conditions. Just like test driving a car, this provides your technicians with the chance to try before committing to purchase. This may seem like adding an extra step (and time) to your process, but the fact is that field trials, run properly, will reduce costs in the long term by providing you with the best product fit for your needs.
So how should you best organize a trial and what are the benefits you’ll receive?
How to run a trial
After that you should seek written responses to your RFP, by a set date. Do ask for samples – this doesn’t replace a trial, but can give you a feel for the product before you start.Obviously, before you hold the trial, you’ll need to have selected a shortlist of vendors and products. This involves extensive online research - reading case studies and white papers, as well as having long conversations with vendors so that they best understand your needs.
Bring together an evaluation team that consists of all stakeholders - those that will be deploying the products, engineers, and representatives from procurement. Also, have a legal representative in the background to call on when necessary. Get them to look at the project objectively – I call it doing the rumba:
R – reasonable (is it a reasonable project to attempt?)
U – understandable (can I explain this to senior management in terms they’ll understand?)
M – measurable (can I measure its impact with the right metrics?)
B – believable (do I believe it can do what we are aiming to do?)
A – achievable (can it achieve the objectives within all our constraints, such as budget?)
From that create a weights and measures chart. This should list all the criteria you are looking at, but weight them depending on their importance. Ensure you have metrics for everything – for example, if distance is a key factor, confirm how you’ll measure it. Set these criteria dependent on your deployment needs, such as type of installation method, the support you require, network compatibility and overall cost.
If products don’t match key criteria, such as standards certification, then drop them from the list. Also have a list of extras that are nice to have – that way you can differentiate if you have two products that both score similarly.
When calculating cost don’t forget to look at the whole expense of the network over its lifetime – for example, a cheap cable may look like a bargain, but then take longer to install, pushing up labor costs. Alternatively, later it may break in the ground, leading to customer outages and expensive remedial works.
Once you have selected your shortlist and confirmed they are happy to take part, then follow these six steps:
1. Select a location for your trial
Pick somewhere that is typical of the installs you are looking to carry out, but ensure it can cover all potential environments (from up a 14,000 feet mountain to in the middle of the desert). Make sure it is on the more challenging side – there’s no point in making it too easy, as it won’t separate competing products at all. Use a real-world scenario where possible to gather the best possible information – and get as much of your installation completed at the same time. Each trial should have a timeline attached to it - if that timeline is not met, then the process should be repeated.
2 .Brief vendors in advance
Give the vendors involved as much notice as possible, and provide information and plans of what you are looking to do. Answer any questions they have to clarify the situation in good time. Share the information with all of them – both questions and answers, to ensure a level playing field. This ensures that they’ll put forward their most appropriate technology for the trial, helping you to get the best fit for your needs.
3. Use your own crews
Vendors will obviously send their own staff to the trial to observe and answer questions. Have a designated point of contact for them to speak to, rather than letting them talk directly to crews, except under your supervision. The actual implementation trials need to be done by your own crews – after all, they’ll be the guys handling the fiber day to day and deploying it for real. Do let vendors brief crews about any particular strengths of their product, but don’t let them take over the process.
4. Compare like with like
It can be difficult to find identical deployment routes to test different vendor cables and microducts on. Aim to make deployment routes as similar as possible, and do take into account any differences that might affect performance. If necessary run multiple trials, with combinations of variables – such as how it performs with six 90º bends versus four, or by testing a particular cable with multiple microducts from different manufacturers to see which pairs work best.
5. Record everything
Make sure that you get a complete and accurate record of the trial so you can refer back to it. Take plenty of photos and film key parts of the trial on your cellphone and make your own measurements of the speed of installation, distance achieved and any other key metrics. Documentation is key – you need the evidence to back up your decision, so that everyone can see why you’ve made your final choice. Archive all the materials so that they are available well into the future, when you may have moved on.
6. Do a thorough evaluation
After the trial evaluate everything, from performance to overall helpfulness of the vendor and the level of support they provided across the process. Talk to your crews to get their feedback – what did they think of the competing products? They are bound to have a different perspective that can add to your own thoughts.
Once you’ve collected all your data go back to your original weights and measures specifications and compare the results. You may not have a 100 per cent match with any vendor, so look at what is vital to your project, and what is just a nice to have. After that it is a question of letting the vendors know who was successful. It is important to be professional on both sides – a vendor may not have the best product for your current needs, but could well be someone you want to work with in the future.
The benefits of field trials
The clear advantage of running a trial is that you can see exactly how potential products perform in the field, and see their strengths and weaknesses, before you commit yourself to a large scale roll-out. You get the chance to see them in action, installed by your own crews, and also get an insight into what vendors are like to work with in terms of advice and support. It should give you the opportunity to identify a number one choice and a backup if things change. It may feel like adding an additional step to the process, but don’t be afraid of the field trial – it could well save you from making the wrong product decision and save you considerable time, money and stress down the line.