June 5, 2013
Given the very high cost of civil works in the deployment of fibre optic infrastructure, it only makes sense for those deploying fibre to think of multiple applications wherever possible. In addition to communications, fibre has been used for leak detection in oil pipelines, internal communications in power systems, traffic monitoring along highways, signalling along railway lines and other innovative new technologies.
Days are gone when institutions operating railway lines and power transmission networks deployed telecommunication networks merely for very low bandwidth internal communication requirements. Today most of these institutions deploy optical fibre for public communications in addition to their own internal use. Most African governments and regional organisations, such as SADC’s Southern African Power Pool
require that any new power lines include optical ground wire (OPGW) that can be used for public communications.
In the power industry, reliable internal communications are vital for maintaining the integrity of the power systems. In the past, internal communications for power systems relied on power line carrier (or broadband over power line) or microwave links. The compelling advantages of optical fibre such as immunity to electromagnetic interference and more information carrying capacity have resulted in many power companies supplementing or replacing their old communication systems with optical fibre. In addition to using optical fibre for their own internal communications, power companies are extending the use of their fibre optic networks for public communications to gain additional revenues. They either lease capacity or dark fibre to telecommunication operators. In some cases, the power companies themselves get into the public telecommunication business. One good example is the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (ZESA) which created a subsidiary, PowerTel, to take advantage of fibre over their transmission network and operate a telecommunication network.
Like the telecommunication industry, the railway industry has a compelling need for very reliable communications. Perhaps the most important of this is accurate signalling to track the location, and sometimes the speed, or trains to avoid collusion. Copper was commonly used in the past for automated railway signalling but because of the advantages of fibre over copper, fibre is replacing copper as the communication medium. Some railway companies are taking advantage of the ever insatiable demand for bandwidth and lease some of their fibre strands to telecommunication companies.
Oil companies and governments have looked at taking advantage of the rights of way along their pipelines to install cable. A fibre optic backbone has already been installed along the Cameroon-Chad pipeline and it is expected that cable will also be installed along the planned Nigeria-Algeria pipeline. In addition to communications, special cables should be installed to detect leaks and prevent fires by monitoring distributed temperature changes along the entire pipelines. Commercial distributed sensors
for pipeline monitoring are readily available. We will also be glad to provide additional information to interested parties.
At the risk of upsetting my friends from Nigeria, I have to point out that such technology would be very valuable in Nigeria. Leak detection cables will go a long way to reduce loss of revenue by oil companies in Nigeria where vandals have the propensity to cut pipelines, siphon oil into containers and sell it on the black market. Leak detection systems can detect leaks and pinpoint the exact location of an event before a lot of damage is done.
Since many fibre deployments in Africa are along roads, it only makes sense for road departments to take advantage of this valuable infrastructure to monitor traffic. Many busy cities of the world have taken advantage of fibre along their highways and installed traffic monitors and control centres to monitor traffic and to provide drivers with road conditions and alternative routes for bypassing congested sections. Such technology is a must for busy African cities, such as Cairo, Lagos and Johannesburg. At least the South African National Road Agency Limited (SANRAL) is implementing the technology. We urge more African countries to follow suite.
Finally, some telecommunication and infrastructure companies in South Africa and Southern Africa are looking forward to opportunities to transport SKA data. SKA (Square Kilometre Array) is a revolutionary new telescope system being financed by the world’s richest countries and will be based in South Africa and Australia. The new telescope will consist of thousands of dish antennas distributed over thousands of kilometres, and will scan the world 10 000 times faster than conventional telescopes.
So where does the fibre come in? Radio frequency information will be transmitted from each antenna to remote processing centres throughout the region over fibre, with bandwidth as high as tens of Tbps. It will require existing telecommunication fibre and new fibre to achieve the goals. Perhaps recent news that a 3km wide asteroid, with its own moon, whizzed by near the earth is a stark reminder that we need powerful telescopes to monitor space phenomenon, especially when massive rocks fly too close to home.
In a nutshell, fibre is such a terrible thing to waste. Africans should think of any conceivable application of fibre so that when installed, it can serve multiple purposes.