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The copper crisis

These are interesting and challenging times for the structured cabling industry. On one hand, there was the recent ratification by the IEEE of the 10 Gigabit Ethernet standard 802.3an, while on the ot...


July 1, 2006  


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These are interesting and challenging times for the structured cabling industry. On one hand, there was the recent ratification by the IEEE of the 10 Gigabit Ethernet standard 802.3an, while on the other the price of copper is going through the stratosphere.

In May, Communications Supply Corp. (CSC), a U.S. distributor of data communications and connectivity systems, issued an advisory to its customers that discussed the severity of the constant price increases.

The news is not good for copper manufacturers, distributors, installers and ultimately the customer.

CSC noted in the advisory that since the beginning of April, copper prices have increased by over US92 cents a pound, with price increases sometimes approaching US20 cents a day. That compares to 2005 when prices only increased by US75 cents during the entire year.

The firm called it the Copper Freight Train. “For the moment there is no stopping copper and looking ahead there seems to be nothing to derail it,” CSC warned. “Worldwide copper consumption will exceed production in 2006 by 100,000 tons according to a BaseMetals.com report.

“The biggest reason for world copper supply tightness and sky-high prices continues to be China, where industrial and urbanization have been underway all decade … Continued strikes and natural disasters across the globe are also contributing to further disruptions to copper output.”

The crisis has also re-ignited the fiber vs. copper debate. While at least one major distributor is currently conducting an in-depth analysis of the two, Jim Carlini, an adjunct professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and a telecom and networking consultant, maintains fiber is the way to go.

“No matter how much you can squeeze on copper, my argument has always been that you can do so much more with fiber,” he wrote recently in a column that appeared on the Web site www.eprairie.com. “If you’re building a new campus or single building, put in fiber as the communications network infrastructure. That will be the transmission medium that matches the lifespan of the building.

“This argument goes back more than a decade. Some heeded it as others continued using obsolete rules of thumb for cabling infrastructure design.”

Not everyone agrees with that position, including Bob Carlson, vice president of global marketing for The Siemon Company. He says that while fiber can provide a future-proof option, it is not capable of supporting the growing demand for Power over Ethernet applications, and the cost of fiber electronics remains prohibitively high for horizontal applications.

The company suggests organizations try cable sharing, a practice accepted by both TIA and ISO, which it says involves running more than one application over different pairs of a twisted-pair copper telecommunications channel thereby reducing costs, simplifying cable management, and converging applications onto one media type in commercial building environments.

Whatever happens, Peter Levoy, vice president of marketing for Anixter Canada Inc., says that at the end of the day, the pricing needs to get to the end user.

“I sympathize with our contractor partners,” says Levoy, the subject of a distributor q&a, which appears on p. 22. “That is clearly an area of concern for Anixter. It’s forced upon the manufacturers, it’s forced upon us and in turn, we need to pass that on to the contractors. This is unprecedented. We have not seen something like this the plenum shortage of the early 1990s.”

If the copper crisis is adversely affecting you I would certainly like to hear from you. You can contact me at pbarker@cnsmagazine.com.