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Call It the End of An Era

Contrary to what many still believe, this is not a young industry. Commoditization has replaced the Wild West days of the past.


September 1, 2002  


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The commoditization of the cabling industry is upon us. While I continue to hear that we are a young industry, and in our infancy, I believe that we have actually reached a maturity, and that the days of “lots of money to be made in data cabling,” which is still espoused in some circles, are long behind us.

I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up, and some days I’m still not sure. At some point in my childhood, I developed the stock answer that I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer; I don’t know what that is either but it always set the adults back and ended the discussion.

My entry into the world of cabling was pure fluke — a good friend was seeking temporary work with an interconnect company while laid off from Bell Canada, and suggested that I also apply. Ignoring my total lack of knowledge or experience, I was tutored for an hour on the way from Barrie to Toronto, and was rewarded with an entry-level position.

Beyond that, I received an increased starting wage due to my confident repetition of the knowledge which had been imparted to me in the previous hour.

DAYS OF SMOKE AND MIRRORS

Despite my inauspicious beginning in this industry, it has led to what I consider a rewarding and fulfilling career. Through the last 15 + years, I have witnessed a number of changes as the industry progresses from it’s self-described infancy to what I believe now is a much more mature business.

The time at which I started could arguably be described as the “Wild West” days of cabling. It followed closely the breakup of AT&T in the U.S. and the opening of the telephone switch business to competition. The associated cabling also became available to companies known as interconnect companies to pursue.

A myriad of companies, (which might today be “start-ups”), sprung up to challenge the incumbents, the big players and each other.

These were the days before EIA/TIA standards took the mystery out of cabling. Designers and cablers struggled with the vagaries of coax, twinax, thicknet, thinnet, ICS, DecNet, and fibre on a daily basis.

The network equipment manufacturers drove the cabling based on their own specifications.

These were truly the days of “smoke and mirrors” when fibre terminations and testing were viewed with awed reverence. The progression to UTP was underway, with the main point of contention being it’s superiority or inferiority to shielded twisted pair.

UTP NOW THE CLEAR KING

A vast array of baluns and adapters entered the fray to modify UTP or STP to emulate the native cabling systems, and further confound network administrators. Testing was a challenge unto itself, using TDRs (that’s right, a non-optical Time Domain Reflectometer), toners, or any other continuity prover cobbled together — for those who insisted on testing.

Those who struggle today to decide between Category 5e and Category 6 would have found cabling decisions much more daunting all those years ago.

Today, the technology of cabling is much more clear. UTP is the clear king, with progressive innovations improving the performance on an ongoing basis. Standards and organizations like BiCSI take much of the mystery out of it. Manufacturer’s provide enhanced warranty programs, but struggle increasingly to support the relevance of them, both in general and as viewed against their competitors.

Labour also is undergoing a marked change. Many initiatives are underway to educate and to qualify the labour pool. There are college and private programs for cabling specialists, manufacturer’s ongoing education courses, and programs offered by industry associations.

A COMMODITY MARKET

I have often heard manufacturer’s bemoan the commoditization of their product. Perhaps this is one reason that standards take so long to reach ratification, for once the standard is set, the product more easily becomes a commodity. Commoditization occurs when the opportunity to differentiate one’s product based on technology, benefits, or features is lost and the lone distinguishing factor is price.

One could argue that quality continues to be a differentiator, but that is true only for certain buyers; those who make standard compliance the only mandatory requirement will have price only as a yardstick. By this definition, cabling has become a commodity.

I continue to feel fortunate to make my living in this industry. I work in a community of people who generally respect and like each other, whether co-workers, supply chain, or even competitors. I receive good working conditions, and a good living (subsistence to you, if you’re reading this, boss). But nostalgia being as it is, I sometimes miss the “good old days”.

Rob Stevenson, RCDD/LAN Specialist is Communications Division Manager at Guild Electric Ltd. in Toronto, and a member of Cabling Systems’ Editorial Advisory Board.


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