The contenders: Clearfield

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Plymouth, Minn.-based Clearfield is decidedly clear about its mission. The manufacturer's signature platform, the Clearview Cassette, enables service providers to rapidly and affordably scale their available fiber, 12 ports at a time.

"Whether it's at the CO (central office) using panel or frame, or using a cabinet, or in-building… you use the exact identical architecture," said Cheri Beranek, president & CEO of Clearfield.

Clearfield developed the Cassette platform in the mid-2000s after listening to their customers, smaller competitive providers that needed to be able to compete with large incumbents' offerings while on a much smaller budget. "We developed a concept that would play from the smallest to largest environment," Beranek said.

The Clearview Cassette has been a hit with Clearfield's target market, Tier 3 providers. The company saw a big jump in revenue in 2011, from $11 million to $35 million. The full year 2012 was not as spectacular, posting a 6 to 8 percent rise in revenue over 2011, mostly due to Universal Service Fund reform as providers took a wait-and-see approach while the new regulations were worked out, Beranek said. But she is optimistic about 2013. "We see a level of acceptance in the marketplace," she said. "There is a bunch of survivors out there, adapting and changing. We're very optimistic… In the quarter ending in December, we saw [the market] changing."

But while the Cassette is the foundation of Clearview's line, the company's breakout product may well have just hit the market.

Clearfield in early March debuted the FieldShield, a modular component of the Clearview Cassette platform. The new product protects fiber at every point along the route and can reduce the amount of time it takes to both install or repair fiber.

Beranek's description of the FieldShield module indicates that the product could be a game-changer for FTTT (fiber to the tower) deployments.

"One thing we experienced while field testing was taking fiber up an inside riser," she said. "We had a cell tower atop a 10-story building. The customer could not take FTTT; the riser network had been exhausted. We used [our] 10 mm microduct as an access inside a larger duct which was exhausted. We went from the top of the tower down and delivered fiber through. As a result we got fiber to the tower in eight hours. The alternative was a whole new riser system or to not do it at all, or expose the whole thing up the side of the tower."

Beranek said the product's light weight and the ability to separate the power source and fiber are key points to FTTT deployment. "Coax is a very heavy technology. As we put more antennas on the tower there's increasing load. With fiber you substantially reduce the weight… to .01 pounds per foot. With a large tower you can remove up to 40,000 pounds. Think about the wind shear reduced from that."

In addition to its core market of Tier 3s, Clearfield's largest customer is Cincinnati Bell (NYSE: CBB), which uses the manufacturer's Clearview Cassette platform throughout its fiber network. With that in mind, would the company's modular architecture work in larger network builds by Tier 1s like Verizon (NYSE: VZ)?

Beranek said yes. "The product line would be absolutely valid in those networks."