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Cover Story: 2003 — Year of the HOLDING PATTERN

There isn't going to be a lot of demand for cable replacement, according to one industry expert, until somebody comes up with an application that blows CAT 5 and 5E away. when it will arrive is anyone's guess.


December 1, 2002  


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To celebrate the end of ’02 — and herald in a new year — Cabling Systems recently asked several experts to wax philosophical about the past, present and future of the cabling industry. Several trends emerged.

All agreed that Category 6 was the story of the year. But the question on everyone’s mind was, now that Cat 6 is official, will it stimulate economic activity?

“There are no driving applications pushing people to start rewiring 5e systems with Cat 6,” says Rob Stevenson, communications manager for Guild Electric Ltd., in Toronto. “There’s not the need for it right now,” he adds, though there is some activity in new construction.

Michael Spencer, Partner at Toronto’s Smith and Anderson Consulting Engineering agrees. “The biggest areas in construction right now are in facilities that are going to be there a long time such as schools and hospital,” he says. “And in those areas it makes a lot of sense to go to a Cat 6 solution because a little extra investment up front gives them longevity in their infrastructure.” But in the typical office environment where leases are often only 5 to 10 years, “Cat 6 is sometimes more difficult to justify,” he adds.

“We went to a Cat 6 standard (for new installs) as soon as it was ratified,” says Keith Fortune, facilities manager with the Bank of Montreal. “If you’re wiring something new, you want to use the best product available. The added cost is significant — it might be a 30 per cent premium — but the cost to re-wire is huge, so the incremental cost of going right to Cat 6 is still a lot lower than any other option.”

But 5e remains very popular, says Montreal telecommunications consultant Dunn Harvey, pointing out that it handles most everything we can throw at it today. It will, however, not go anywhere near 10 gigabits,” he warns, noting that Cat 6 may well suffer the same fate — if and when a copper-based 10-gig standard is developed. “Most people don’t even have one gigabit presently,” he adds, “and I don’t see the need over the next five or six years anyway. That means, in many cases, that Cat 5e will be sufficient for another 10 to 15 years.”

But even Cat 6 remains a moving target, says Harvey. Since the standard was issued last June, many manufacturers have begun offering premium cable that is over spec. He calls it ‘Cat 6 Plus,’ explaining this is a non-official term for a Cat 6 class cable that boasts either superior separating materials between the pairs — to provide much better transmission characteristics — or slightly larger-gauge copper conductors to reduce resistance (23 instead of 24 AWG). The new materials and manufacturing techniques greatly increase the cost, he says “but the high rollers will pay the premium.”

Some Cat 6 rough spots were identified as well. Several of our experts pointed out that not all Cat 6 is created equal, in that many of the pre-standard products, though called ‘Cat 6,’ are actually nothing more than glorified 5e.

What’s more, we’re told it may be several months before full, cross manufacturer, connector and patch cord interoperability arrives in the Cat 6 world.

OTHER STANDARDS NEWS

What’s to come on the standards front? Now that Cat 6 and so many other standards were finalised over the past year or so, things will be slowing down, says Harvey. Some specialised work in industrial and call centre standards are expected in 2003, he says. And watch for a re-write of the standard for containing cabling systems and equipment in customer premises, but little else is happening.

ECONOMIC OUTLOOK

You’ve likely noticed you’re not getting any richer these days, though things are looking at least marginally brighter. Our experts say things are unlikely to pick-up over the next several quarters.

“Last year we saw a major drop in installations of copper cabling and LAN equipment,” says Harvey, “and the structured cabling industry is not growing as fast as it was in previous years. This trend will likely continue until mid 2003.”

SPECIALISED TRAINING GAINS MOMENTUM

“We’re seeing with Cat 6 that the installation methodologies are far more important and now have a direct relation to the performance you end up getting out of the system,” says Guild’s Stevenson.

“So installation must now be even more precise,” adds Harvey. “Even the way you punch down the wires on a jack is now tremendously important. So installers must be trained specifically for the type of jack they are installing.” (see sidebar)

TESTING, TESTING . . .

Since this new level of exactitude in Cat 6 systems raised several issues around cable testing, we asked Charles Ganimian, product Manager and Peter Schweiger, Business Development Manager/Americas with Agilent Technologies Inc.’s network systems division for their thoughts.

“There is a real need out there today for the installer to prove to the customer that their installation is actually working,” says Schweiger. “Every year, installers are asked to make more measurements and even complete certifications. I think you’re going to see that as speeds go up, people are going to want to certify a network not simply for its physical characteristics,” he adds, “but also for actual services levels.”

But another testing issue sparked many comments as well.

WHO TESTS WHAT?

“You can test the cable after it’s installed. But it’s very rare that you’ll use it anywhere near test speeds for some time,” says Fortune. “In many cases you won’t know if a cable will truly perform until you get up to those speeds,” he adds. “And by that time, there will be too much lost time to attempt to figure out what happened, or who’s at fault.”

“If the installer is also responsible for testing, adds Spencer, you have to hope he’s being ethical.” You may not find out he was cheating for several years, he explains. And then it’s often the cable manufacturer that gets blamed. “So there is talk of the cable manufacturers doing independent testing versus having the installer do it.”

The trick, says Fortune, is to “get the best possible install you can up front and insure that the installers have been certified by the cable manufacturer.”

“But if you really want to do some testing,” adds Harvey, “I recommend using an independent consultant or testing company.”

There is even a chance the engineers could become responsible for independent testing, but whatever happens, don’t expect a shift any time soon. “This one’s a political hot potato,” says Spencer. “It’s not going anywhere right now, though that may change in the New Year.”

“I think system owners must become more involved with what’s happening with the testing of their systems,” says Guild’s Stevenson. “If testing is the only benchmark you have for how well your system has been installed, you must make sure the testing is being done properly — regardless of who’s doing it.”

WIRELESS

Then, of course, there’s 2002’s most-hyped networking story — the wireless LAN — where a very distinct change in attitude is noticeable.

“My perception is that people are taking a step back from wireless today” says Stevenson.

Wireless is growing slowly, says Spencer. But cabling folks are now commonly finding they need more radio knowledge, he adds, bringing a whole new level of complexity to the field.

And 802.11 is having some impact in the residential cabling sector, says Ganimian. “The whole residential wiring model is becoming an uphill battle now,” he adds, “because wireless at home simplifies things so much. But there doesn’t seem to be any ‘killer app’ to drive the business to switch to wireless.”

FIBER VS. COPPER

The situation isn’t that bright on the optical front. “My impression is that fiber is really staying in the backbone,” says Ganimian. “We’ve taken the copper systems to the point where there’s no need for the incremental cost of fiber in the LAN.”

“Nobody needs it right now,” adds Fortune. “It has its advantages, but who needs it?”

What’s more, confusion is building in the fiber world, says Stevenson. “Fiber optic choice used to be fairly straightforward. But today, with the additio
n of 50 micron and optimised fiber and so on, those waters are muddied, so there’s more market confusion about fiber now than there has been in a long time. I still don’t see fiber to the desk on the horizon.”

But 10 Gig does not run on copper yet, Harvey points out. “I think next year we’ll see some people beginning to use 10 Gig — even if fiber is required.”

At press time, in a move the Wall Street Journal calls “a significant retreat from the business,” Giant fiber producer Corning Inc. announced it is closing three fiber manufacturing facilities — including one of its most efficient plants — due to “continued lower demand across all the telecommunications businesses.” Can a more direct message be sent to fiber boosters?

But it’s Fortune who best draws together the ‘feel’ of the networking industry in general.

“Everybody’s been in a holding pattern since Y2K,” he says. “Everybody is still waiting; waiting for wireless to really take off, waiting for users to require more speed to move to the next level of network bandwidth, waiting for fiber to the desktop to become something people will actually use.

“Yet we’re all still using Cat 5. We have 5e and we’re moving to Cat 6, but right now the biggest files on the desktop are for adult entertainment. So there won’t be lot of demand for cable replacement until somebody comes out with an application that blows Cat 5 and 5e away so that we have to put in either Cat 6 or fiber to the desktop. Then there will be a huge boom again.”

Few see that happening in the year to come.`

Chris Blythe is a broadly published writer and infocom analyst. He can be reached at cblythe@xris.ca.

‘NO MORE HOME-MADE PATCH CORDS!’

“Patch cords have become the killer in this industry,” warns Dunn Harvey from his new perch as an independent telecommunications consultant. And with almost half a century in Canada’s communications cable industry, he should know.

“Patch cords were a major concern for Cat 5 and Ca 5e, but for Cat 6 they’re even more critical,” he points out. “They are no longer something you can make yourself.

“No installer will be able to tune a patch cord to fit in these jacks and perform electrically to Cat 6 standards,” he explains. “The wires inside today’s patch cords are specifically routed to give the performance necessary to meet the jack’s requirements, so it’s not something that can be done by hand.”

This means that all patch cords must now be purchased from reliable manufacturers, he adds. They can no longer be made by installers.

“You cannot use home-made patch cords any longer,” he reiterates. “Don’t even attempt it, because you will not be able to come even close to Cat 6 standards.”

EXPERTS SAY: BE CAREFUL WITH CAT 6

A common theme during this year’s experts’ survey was the new level of care required when installing Category 6 systems.

“With Cat 5, manufacturers could very easily make product that was so much better than the standard that less than ideal installations would still pass,” says Chuck Ganimian, Product Manager at Agilent Technologies Network Systems Test Division. “Installers had more margin to play with,” he adds. “5e changed that a little bit, but Cat 6 changes that a lot.

Operators are now measuring to much, much tighter tolerances,” he explains, which mean that with Cat 6 if you fail to install the cable properly, you will have trouble.”

“We need to be able to get it right the first time,” adds Ganimian. “And the way to do that is to make sure we have expert installers in the field. So I think training will become a much bigger piece of the picture next year.”


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