What is Dark Fiber?

10G is the new 1G, meaning companies worldwide are upgrading their networks to keep up with bandwidth demand. One side effect is that enterprises across industries are taking a fresh look at dark fiber. It wasn’t the right fit before, simply because it didn’t make sense given the relatively small amount of the bandwidth they were using, but once businesses hit that 10G mark and above, the benefits of dark fiber became clear. Simply put, the model around the “ideal dark fiber client” has been turned on its head.

Traditionally, many companies that steered clear of dark fiber have associated it with two negative connotations: long-term contracts and expensive rates. School districts and governments were the primary consumers of dark fiber for years, because they needed the bandwidth, scalability and security and were willing to pay more upfront for it. But now, dark fiber is a great opportunity for enterprises across the board – hospitals and other healthcare organizations, financial institutions, manufacturing companies, sports teams, you name it – as they grow their networks. If 10G of dark fiber falls in line, cost-wise, with lit 10G service, and the carrier fee will stay the same when you inevitably need to upgrade to 100G, where’s the downside?

Given the recent bandwidth-hungry IT demands – including remote working, telehealth, 5G, IoT and more – if you make any decisions around a company’s telecom network, it’s a great time to consider (or perhaps reconsider) dark fiber.


What is dark fiber? How does dark fiber work?

First, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page when it comes to the definition. “Dark fiber” simply means fiber optic cable that’s not in use, and it refers to the practice of leasing out unlit fiber directly from the carrier to the customer. If you’re the customer leasing dark fiber, it’s your responsibility to purchase and maintain the optical equipment that will “light” it. Though this approach puts more of the responsibility in the hands of the consumer, it also offers you more control.

Your dark fiber provider will engineer, install, and maintain the infrastructure, while you turn up the network and enjoy all the secure bandwidth your business requires. It depends on the provider, but generally, various network architecture designs are available, including single entrance, dual entrance, ring or hub designs.

So what is dark fiber connectivity, in short? A pathway to owning a robust, dedicated fiber-optic network.


Why would I want dark fiber technology?

Good question! Let’s dive in. Here are the main reasons:

  • Security: A few key benefits are top of the list when it comes to dark fiber, but chief among them is security. It’s impossible to find a more secure network than a dark fiber network. As you can imagine, this has been a big selling point for healthcare organizations and banks, trading firms and other financial institutions, which are transmitting extremely sensitive data every hour – and bound by clear, firm regulations.
  • Fixed Cost: Dark fiber isn’t necessarily less expensive for every company, but if your business is tapping into bandwidth-heavy service on a regular basis, it’s likely to deliver cost savings to you over time. By owning and operating the equipment on either end of the fiber link, you’re essentially taking that cost in-house and creating a relatively fixed spend. Of course, you may have to purchase that equipment, requiring a higher upfront cost, and some companies have to invest more resources into their internal IT teams when they move toward dark fiber.
  • Scalability: This is another area where owning optical equipment helps – you can scale whenever you want, almost immediately, and the price from your carrier will stay the same. (You just might have to spend more to update your equipment when you need more bandwidth.)
  • High Performance (Bandwidth + Latency): With dark fiber, your bandwidth is virtually unlimited. Moreover, you can rest assured that your data is simply traveling from one point to another and is the only traffic on your network, reducing latency. Since you control the equipment and the network, you control the performance.

And those are the four main prongs supporting the dark fiber use case: security, cost, scalability and high performance. All four are increasingly critical in a business climate where bandwidth is devoured at record rates.


Dark Fiber By Vertical

  • Education: School systems have been on the forefront of dark fiber for years. In fact, UPN got its start in 1998 leasing many dark fiber networks to the education sector in particular; both dark fiber and local school systems are at the core of UPN. School systems continue to be avid consumers of dark fiber. Since the 2015 revamp of the FCC’s E-Rate program, which adjusted policy to officially treat lit and dark fiber services the same, school districts have adopted dark fiber at a faster pace, according to FierceTelecom.
  • Government: The same goes for government facilities – they’ve been leasing dark fiber for years and continue to do so. The increased security that dark fiber affords has always been a major selling point for government organizations.
  • Telecom: Some carriers, carrier hotels and cell towers have been tapping into dark fiber networks for quite awhile. Small cell backhaul and data center connectivity have been recent drivers of dark fiber, FierceWireless reports. As carriers roll out 5G, the fiber backbone is vital, and dark fiber is one key solution.
  • Healthcare: With many hospitals and doctor’s offices implementing telemedicine in waves, the security and scalability of dark fiber is critical. We’re seeing more and more dark fiber requests from healthcare providers.
  • Enterprise: This is arguably the fastest growing segment when it comes to dark fiber adoption. Certain enterprise industries, such as financial firms, are jumping on this bandwagon faster than others, but even enterprises who never would’ve considered dark fiber a decade ago are showing interest now.


Who are the dark fiber providers in the US?

Many telecom carriers shy away from selling dark fiber, because they view it as giving up their assets at a low rate. Once a customer buys dark fiber, they don’t need to return to their dark fiber service provider to upgrade their bandwidth (a huge advantage for said customers!)

Because carriers often see dark fiber as a low-margin sale, they will nickel and dime the customer in other ways, from “locating” to route inspection to facility repair fees. UPN handles these logistics at no cost. Locating is, in fact, a very substantial internal expense, but we don’t pass along those costs to our customers. Make sure to ask your dark fiber provider about these often hidden fees!


What is the future of the dark fiber networks market?

Given the aforementioned growth of dark fiber adoption across enterprises – and the fact that it continues to be a preferred model for schools and hospitals – the future of the dark fiber networks market is bright…no pun intended. Dark fiber represents an incredible opportunity for companies across industries, especially as they digitally transform or upgrade their networks.

To learn more about UPN’s dark fiber service, click here.