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Converging thoughts (July 01, 2010)

What does this all mean to the ITS industry? The short answer is opportunity for the one thing allconverging technologies need is computing power and bandwidth.

July 1, 2010  

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Convergence first entered the lexicon of the computer (IT) and Telecommunications industries in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Interestingly at that time step by step and crossbar phone systems with manual switchboards were still in use.

Readers familiar with Lily Tomlin’s Laugh-In character Ernestine the Telephone Operator would know what these are. In the 1980s convergence was all about converging telephones and computers as well as converging TVs and computers. There were a number of products developed but none really got traction in the market or delivered the promise of true convergence.

In 1978, Norpak, funded by the Canadian Communications Research Centre (CRC), launched Telidon Teletext/Videotext Terminals, which were a hint of what we now see as common place technologies in the 21st century. During that time Ted Rogers of Rogers Cable made a proposal to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to allow consumers to download computer software over the Cable TV System and was shot down.

Now our computers do it automatically. Mitel in the late 1970s, launched its SX200 Electronic Private Branch Exchange (EPBX) which differentiated it from old analog PBXs, but we know today as just PBXs. This was the convergence of telephone technology and integrated circuit (IC) technology developed by the computer industry.

In the 1990s Interactive Voice Response (IVR) was integrated/interfaced with and into phone systems.

With their “hooks” to data bases, the function of customer information being automatically displayed on the operator’s terminal, upon dialing or receiving a call, was another step towards convergence.

Also in the 1990s the term “Intelligent Building” entered the lexicon of the industry and in the Information Transport System (ITS) industry “Universal Transport System” (UTS) “Structured Cabling Systems” (SCS) became the buzz words.

Up to that time most data centric systems relied upon different proprietary cable types, specific to each manufacturer and to each different system type.

IBM’s “IBM Cabling System” was developed and widely deployed at this time and provided a single cabling system to support IBM’s various mainframe systems, including Token Ring networks, telephone systems and even 10Mb Ethernet later on with the use of baluns.

Unfortunately this was a 150 Ohm media and with Ethernet and 100 Ohm Unshielded Twisted Pair (UTP) becoming the defacto industry standards, it quickly fell out of favour in the industry.

Unfortunate for IBM, because had it been an 100 Ohm system, it would still be in use today, as only now with the development of Cat6A/ISO Class EA, ISO Class F/Cat7 and ISO Class Fa/Cat7A screened/shielded cabling, are we seeing cabling systems that can match the frequency range and performance characteristics of the IBM Cabling System.

The development of UTS and SCS cabling systems now became the technical “enabler” for the promise of convergence, becoming the system neutral transport media of converged communications technologies.

The same holds true for Fiber to the Home (FTTH) where the explosion of social networking, gaming and the downloading of music and videos is putting stress on the existing broadband networks. Research analysts are projecting the Internet will soon have to handle Exabytes of traffic (1 Billion Gigabytes). With 40Mbps to the home coming with 100Mbps close behind, FTTH is the only viable media to be able to deliver all these converging technologies.

Recently Google announced that they will build trial FTTH networks with network speeds of 1Gbps to each home.

Also in the 1990s, the term Intelligent Building came into use and there were many initiatives started by companies like IBM and Lucent and some intelligent buildings were designed and built.

The term Intelligent Building is a bit of a catch-all phrase, but in this context we can talk about a common structured cabling system (SCS) that not only supports voice and data, but building automation systems as well.

At this point we need to ask what is convergence? The answer depends upon the many different sub industries in the electronics, IT and telecommunications industries and which lens you see the answer through.

Is it the cell phone that acts as a PDA, music player and camera that can also create and transmit text messages, pictures and video? Is it the smart terminal connected to your cable TV or Satellite system?

Is it the PC on your desk that can work as a video phone with VoIP software and a webcam or on which you can watch movies and listen to music on? Many handheld devices are now GSP-enabled, which opens another factor of convergence.

The answer is not simple, but clearly, we can see that many technologies are converging, driven by the many advances in software, technology and broadband communications.

What does this all mean to us in the ITS industry? The short answer is opportunity. One thing that all of these converging technologies need is computing power and bandwidth. Computing power is readily available, but bandwidth is where our industry comes in. Lack of bandwidth was one of the reasons that AT&T’s launch of the “Picturephone in the early 1960s and its “Videophone” in the mid 1990s never got broad acceptance, which were some other examples of early attempts at convergence. It was also the reason “ThinClient” terminals never took off in the 1980s, although they are now making reappearance with availability of high LANs and concerns about security at the workstation level.

We see more and more technologies becoming Internet Protocol (IP) centric, from IP CCTV cameras, paging and audio systems to VoIP) telephone systems. As well, the building and plant automation industries are moving away from proprietary interfaces to IP based interfaces and communications protocols. All of this not only provides opportunities for the ITS industry but also challenges.

Where 10 Mpbs and 100 Mbps Ethernet were relatively forgiving systems on poor quality and/or poorly installed Category 5 and 5e cabling systems, the same cannot be said of VoIP phones systems and 1Gb Ethernet systems that now use all four pairs.

As 10 GbE becomes more broadly deployed, the importance of having cabling systems professionally designed and installed by skilled professionals only increases in importance.

In a way our industry has come full circle, from the early 1980s where designers had to have very specialized knowledge and installers needed specialized training and tooling through the 1990s where anyone with a punchdown tool and a ladder got into the cabling business to 2008 where again designers have to have very specialized knowledge as well as training and installers need specialized training, tooling and now very sophisticated and expensive testers.

With the twin crisis’ of energy and climate change and the recent financial crisis, more and more building owners and corporations will be looking at ways to reduce costs and to reduce their impact on the environment and will be looking at the technologies to achieve those goals.

Unbeknownst to the general public industry has been undertaking their own, to borrow a phrase a “Green Shift”. Industry has realized that “Green Business is Good Business”. To quote IBM’s Web site “Today energy costs can eat 30% to 40% of a company’s operational budget — and these costs are projected to double over the next five years.”

We are also seeing more buildings constructed to the new LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System.

Building automation and the convergence of various technologies is vital to achieving these goals and beyond.

Envision a truly Intelligent Building with fully converged technologies like a hotel for example, where the swipe of smart access card automatically heats or cools and sets lighting levels in the room to your preference, all of your other preferences for food, entertainment, recreation and communications is automa
tically input into the hotel’s main system and various subsystem respond accordingly.

The IP phone is automatically loaded with all your frequently called numbers and alerts housekeeping when you leave the room to facilitate efficient housekeeping and is used by cleaning and maintenance staff to update room status in real time.

Convergence, is it finally here? I will leave the definitive answer to that question, to more expert opinions, but clearly convergence is happening and certainly in the customer premise, Information Transport Systems will be the physical enabler to make it a reality. CNS

Alex Smith, RCDD, is the president of Connectivitywerx, a Markham, Ont. firm that specializes in the design, installations and service of copper, fiber and wireless deployments. He can be reached at