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Installation: Cabling on the Home Front

Whatever the Medium, Putting It in the Right Place Is at Least as Important as Putting in the Right Kind of Cable.The wired home is by no means the norm yet, but the number of homes networked for data...

March 1, 2003  

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Whatever the Medium, Putting It in the Right Place Is at Least as Important as Putting in the Right Kind of Cable.

The wired home is by no means the norm yet, but the number of homes networked for data, voice and — increasingly — video is growing. A significant minority of new homes are now built with structured cabling, and some homeowners are even facing up to the daunting prospect of retrofitting existing houses.

Research firm In-Stat/MDR of Scottsdale, Ariz., predicts the number of households worldwide with multimedia home networks will grow at 210 per cent per year through 2006. Most home networks today are PC-centred, In-Stat says, but audio and video will play a growing role in the future.

Just how important structured cabling will be in the residential market, though, depends partly on the competition from other technologies: wireless and power-line networking.

Kurt Scherf, vice-president of research at Parks Associates in Dallas, says his company’s research in the U.S. showed that about 20 per cent of homes built in 2002 had network cabling installed during construction. He expects the figure to reach roughly 30 per cent this year.

Of course, the new homes built in any year account for only a very small portion of all housing. Even 30 per cent of new homes is still not a large number. “You’re looking at a subset of a subset,” observes Ira Brodsky, president of Datacomm Research Co. in Chesterfield, Mo.

Cabling existing buildings is a tough job, requiring either expert installers who can fish wires through walls and floors without cutting into them, or a nightmare of cutting and patching drywall or plaster.

Retrofitting without the mess is possible, says Brian Stal, owner of electronic cabling contractor Rezitron Inc. in Toronto. “We always take pride in the fact that we do those jobs without any damage.” But getting wires from point A to point B in the walls of a finished house takes time, Stal says, though Rezitron is finding significant demand for cabling work in older homes.

The retrofit market is small, though — Scherf estimates a total of around 100,000 installations. Brodsky says most owners of existing homes satisfy themselves with running single cables, typically connecting two computers to a single broadband Internet connection.

In most cases these cables snake along baseboards or at best drop through floors and run across basement ceilings.

Or, homeowners wanting to add network connections turn to the alternatives that don’t require cabling. “Unless the consumer is tearing out walls,” Scherf says, “they’ll probably choose one of the no-new-wires solutions.”

The more popular of these is wireless networking. The 802.11b wireless-network standard offers speeds up to 11 megabits per second, which is more than sufficient for today’s applications though potentially limiting for the video applications of the future. And emerging wireless technologies, such as the 802.11a and 802.11g specifications, offer increased capacity that may be able to keep up with homeowners’ future bandwidth needs.

“The performance and the cost of wireless are improving,” says Brodsky, who believes wireless networks will play a growing role in homes. A wireless-network adapter can now be had for under US$50, he says — major Canadian retailers list them at around $100.

Does that mean wireless will elbow structured cabling aside in the home market? The answer is no. For new construction, it is easy to run wires through the walls, and many new homeowners and builders will see this as a sensible bit of future-proofing.

Stal notes that many people worry about how secure wireless networks are, that their reach isn’t always sufficient to cover all areas of larger homes, and that “you don’t get the speed out of the wireless that you get out of the hard wire.”

“You’ll see more and more wireless,” Brodsky concludes, “but you’re not going to see structured wiring systems or wireless becoming overwhelmingly dominant — you’ll see both.” That’s partly because the two can be complementary — even in a new house with Ethernet cable to every room, wireless connections can be handy for moving around the house or doing some work out on the deck with a notebook computer.

The analysts are more skeptical about the other major no-new-wires option: power-line networking. This approach uses special adapters that plug into electrical outlets and route data over the house’s electrical wiring. Researchers have been experimenting with it for years without making much of a dent in the market, but a group of vendors who have formed the HomePlug Powerline Alliance hope their multi-vendor standard for power-line networking will change that.

The first HomePlug specification was completed in June 2001, says Tom Reed, president of the alliance, and consumer products began appearing in stores last year.

The prices of HomePlug adapters have fallen to around US$60, which Reed says is getting close to the price point at which the alliance thinks the technology will flourish. And just recently, vendors have launched new products that Reed thinks will give HomePlug a significant boost: an 802.11b wireless adapter that plugs into a HomePlug power-line network, and network hubs that can support combinations of wired Ethernet, 802.11 wireless and HomePlug connections.

However, the analysts say power-line networking has not had much impact yet and they are not sure it will. “I see a future for it,” Brodsky says, “but a much more limited one.”

He questions whether power-line networks can supply the bandwidth needed for broadband applications such as high-speed Internet access, video and home audio systems.

Brodsky adds that power lines tend to be noisy. Reed replies that HomePlug technology is designed to work around the noise. Still, the initial HomePlug specification delivers typical connection speeds of about 5.5 megabits per second, or about half what 802.11b promises.

That’s sufficient for many purposes, but not for some future applications. Recognizing this, the HomePlug alliance is at work on a second specification called HomePlug AV, which Reed says should be complete in 2004 and will be able to handle high-quality video.

Nobody — not even Reed — expects power-line networking to replace either structured cabling or wireless. Reed says HomePlug is a complement to other networking technologies, useful for reaching places in a home where neither a wireless nor a conventional wired connection is available, and able to work with the other technologies.

Where structured cabling is the choice, Category 5e cable is currently the most popular choice. Scherf says Category 5e is clearly lots for today’s applications, and is not sure there will be any need for more in the foreseeable future.

Some builders and homeowners are taking a better-safe-than-sorry view, though, and installing Category 6 cable or even optical fiber. “Who knows what’s going to be in 10 to 15 years from now,” Stal observes.

OFS, a Norcross, Ga. maker of fiber networking products, is pushing its technology for bringing fiber to the home. Paul Neuhart, president of OFS’ Cable and Connectivity Division, predicts triple-digit growth in fiber-to-the-home installations this year, admittedly on a small base. Globally, he says, there are about 500,000 installations today, with nearly half of these in Japan and about 30 per cent in North America.

Today, Neuhart says, the fiber typically ends at an optoelectronic device where the connection enters the house — relatively few homes use fiber internally. However, OFS officials say they have done some fiber installations inside homes. Laura Huffman, senior manager of cable and connectivity product management at OFS, says developments such as high-density television may create demand for fiber in the home in a few years.

Maybe, but few homebuilders are sufficiently sure of this to shell out the cost of installing fiber today. Yet the prospect of trying to retrofit homes with fiber in a few years isn’t pleasant, so some are choosing to hedge their bets by installing conduit or “microduct” throug
h which fiber can be blown later without disturbing the walls.

Neuhart, whose company licenses a microduct technology from British Telecom, says this actually requires less skill on the installer’s part than a traditional installation, and means users needn’t actually deploy fiber until a genuine need arises.

Meanwhile coaxial cable remains the usual way of connecting television sets to cable or satellite feeds — but Scherf suggests coax may fade from the scene in the coming years, its function taken over by multi-purpose structured cabling networks.

Whatever the medium, putting it in the right place is at least as important as putting in the right kind of cable. For new construction, the best rule of thumb seems to be if in doubt, run a cable. “We recommend (connecting) every room that they might imagine ever having some electronic equipment in,” Stal says.

The simple answer is probably to cable every room. And if you think you can forget the garage at least, don’t be too sure. What about a future computerized device for troubleshooting your car that might need Internet access? Finally, Stal suggests running a couple of spare cables up into the attic or down into the basement to provide an easy place for hooking on future additions to the network.

Retrofitting an existing home, of course, is a different matter unless the walls are already opened up for other reasons. In most cases homeowners will probably want to do the minimum necessary for their immediate needs.

In either case, Stal warns that residential installations need just as much care and professionalism as commercial ones. Proper gear and installation are always essential — “if you just throw the wires in without taking the proper care, they may not perform at all.”

Grant Buckler has written about information technology and telecommunications since 1980. He is now a freelance writer and editor living in Kingston, Ont.