June 2023 Vol. 78 No. 6

Editor's Log

Editor’s Log: A fiber road paved by HDD

Robert Carpenter | Editor-in-Chief 

(UI) — It doesn’t seem that long ago when fiber cable plans were beginning to be developed by various communication companies of the world. My first recollection of the fiber future came at a UCT Conference. I was sitting in the back of a packed room listening to an HDD/telecommunications session. It was the mid-‘90s and fiber optics was barely a whisper. 

As I tend to do, I struck up a conversation with a gentleman sitting adjacent to me as we were waiting for the session to begin. The session was covering the telecom construction outlook and the role HDD would play. I soon learned this elderly gentleman knew an awful lot about telecommunications and HDD. Turned out he was a senior official from the construction side of AT&T. As the session wrapped up, he turned to me and said simply, “You ain’t seen nothing yet!” 

I pressed him for an explanation. “Ever heard of fiber optics? You will,” he told me. “We just finished a complete overhaul of our infrastructure and we’ll soon be doing the same thing again, except this time with fiber.” 

As he explained what the capabilities of fiber were, I understood why he was so excited. Communications, not only in the U.S. but the world as well, would never be the same again. 

By the late ‘90s, fiber backbone construction was marching across the land like Sherman to Atlanta. It was the early version of crypto currency – every investor was going to become a multi-millionaire overnight. The market for directional drills hit unprecedented – and unrealistic – highs. HDD was the perfect technology to aid the expansion of fiber installation, along with trenching and plowing. It was the telecom version of the early 1980s oil boom. 

Then the infamous crash came. By 2002, all was quiet on the fiber construction front – and that included small rig drilling. 

The business model of the time was seriously flawed. The “build it and they will come” philosophy was misplaced. Fiber trunk lines may have surrounded key cities and areas, but rarely was the “distribution” aspect – getting fiber to homes and premises – in place. 

Entertainment, communications, web access, etc. had not evolved enough to justify the high costs (at the time) of paying for fiber to be routed through the “last mile.” Plans for fiber product development were just beginning to emerge from existing, and a plethora of start-up, companies. All struggled to find the right combination necessary to prosper with fiber. Without customers signing up for fiber services, dark fiber quickly became the rule of the fiber road. 

By the 2010s, fiber was rebounding. The term “fast internet” became synonymous with affordable fiber capabilities at your office and (shockingly!) perhaps coming to our homes, as well. 

Steadily, visionaries came forth and we subsequently experienced the birth of media/entertainment companies, rather than just cable or telephone providers. Cable television companies tripled their channel offerings – and then tripled again, learning how to price tier structures. 

The internet finally took off, though slow access speeds hindered growth initially. Early web access and email platforms like AOL enabled modern internet access. People actually started seeing a serious need for digital communications in both their businesses and homes. It wasn’t long before telecommunications technology advancements allowed speeds to increase geometrically. 

Suddenly the race was on to capitalize on new internet capabilities made possible by the fiber highway. I would even argue that fiber – and subsequently HDD – actually built Amazon and Google. 

The new fiber boom was upon us, but this time most of the installation was in/around neighborhoods, as well as businesses. With access to millions of new customers, providers could offer various and dramatically increased speeds at more reasonable prices. 

Fiber was built in my neighborhood a couple of years ago. The poor young salesperson who knocked on my door didn’t know what hit him when I pulled him into my dining room to talk. The high-speed service we signed up for actually saved $5 per month. 

Leading the way for this latest fiber boom is none other than HDD combined with mini-trenching and the established stalwarts of utility construction: plowing, trenching and piercing tools. But small HDD rigs fit hand-in-glove with most of the fiber buildout. There’s no denying that HDD built, and continues to build, America’s telecommunications future. 

HDD survey says 

In this issue are the results of Underground Infrastructure’s 25th Annual HDD Survey. As usual, this exclusive and in-depth research into the ever-widening world of directional drilling produced its fair share of interesting market twists. 

What wasn’t surprising was the tenacity for directional drilling displayed by the respondents, whether they were sweating out tough times from the energy sector or riding high on the fiber tsunami. 

One veteran contractor issued what seemed to be a very apt statement about HDD: “Pure and simple, HDD is here to stay. We’re definitely in it for the long haul.”

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