For some voice/data/video (V/D/V) customers, you are a consultant as well as an installer. When the customer asks you for a recommendation of fiber or copper, or Category 5e, Cat 6, Cat 7, Level 6, Level 7, or the VIP 1000 program, what will you say?

How can electrical contractors in the voice/data/video business best serve the customer who wants a local area network (LAN) installed in his facility? Customers often ask for your company's recommendation. What should you tell them?

Here is what the system suppliers want you to know.

Many options are available. You can install Category 5 copper cable, which has been surpassed for high-speed networks by Category 5e (for enhanced) - which finally become a consensus industry standard only late last fall. Graybar offers an above-Category 5e specification for copper cable (VIP 1000), as does Anixter (Level 6 and Level 7).

There are drafts of Category 6 and Category 7 around, as well, against which manufacturers are producing - and marketing - copper products.

Moreover, there is fiber optics, the always-looming-but-never-quite-there competitor for copper V/D/V cable. When one talks about "future-proofing" a V/D/V installation, fiber optics - as in fiber to the desk, or FTTD - is clearly the best option . . . if one gives zero consideration to the cost.

Which option is best, for which customer?

As electrical contractors are advancing from V/D/V neophytes to professionals, they will want to claim a certain level of expertise. To serve your customers as well in V/D/V as you have in standard electrical work, you must be as ready to answer difficult questions about these installations, as you always have been responsive about power work.

To help you respond, Electrical Contractor asked 11 V/D/V suppliers what they would say if we could put them in your shoes for a moment This is what suppliers think you need to know.

What about fiber?

You may be thinking "why not just recommend fiber optics, install it, and be done with it?" At Electrical Contractor's recent daylong seminar on V/D/V (October 25 in New Orleans), a contractor put it just that way to a panel of industry experts. "Since we're going to have to install fiber eventually anyway [paraphrasing the way he asked[, why install copper of any kind now, when we know we're going to have to rip it out in three to five years and replace it with a new copper system?"

Fiber optics does seem to offer the advantage of install-and-forget, as least as regards the cabling. According to sources familiar with information technology (IT) decision-makers, these individuals still shy away from fiber because of the perception that it is much more expensive to install and maintain.

"The real question is not copper or fiber," says Mike Barnick, senior manager of marketing communications for Lucent Technologies. "The question is, what are the customer's needs, in terms of bandwidth and throughput?

"How efficient a corporate enterprise are they going to have? How much bandwidth do they need? What kind of data rates? How much do they want to anticipate their data networking needs changing?"

While Barnick suggests an approach that could be summed up as "there are horses for courses," (WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?) at Panduit, Rick Akins, marketing manager for data communications, notes that his company regularly meets with V/D/V contractors and talks about this very question (among many others).

Groups come to the company's Illinois headquarters every six weeks or so. Akins says he and other Panduit managers learn something from each group.

"These people are part of our certified contractor program," says Akins. "We have been asking, recently, when they are installing fiber. Most of them said that, when it comes to horizontal fiber installations, it's mostly going into schools and other institutions.

"Typically, with a school system, you are looking at one-time funding for a network installation. If there's money now, you can be pretty sure there won't be additional funding in three or five years.

"Since it's one-time funding, you are putting in an infrastructure that may well be in place for 15 to 20 years. It's obvious that at some point during that period you are going to want to have fiber. So a lot of people are putting fiber into schools now.

"We're hearing similar tales about others in a situation with a one-time budget - including some medical facilities and laboratories. Also, horizontal fiber networks are being applied [where clients] have the need for high data rates. I'm thinking of engineering groups, for example. Essentially, the customer has got to be made to look at how long they think they are going to be in the building."
Fiber isn't necessary?

On the other hand, Paul Kish, senior product manager (responsible for integrated building distribution network systems) at Nordx/CDT, notes that there is a significant price difference between the electronics (an active component, not typically designed or installed thus far by electrical contractors) for fiber optics over copper.
"Those are the kind of things that influence people," says Kish. "Those making the decision want to know what is it going to cost to set up an end-to-end installation. For the same performance today, you'll end up paying more for fiber."

What's more, perhaps fiber optics is not necessary just yet. Todd Harpel, the technical services manager at Hubbell Premise Wiring, says that an installation made to the draft Category 6 standard "will provide the kind of bandwidth people need for at least the next five to ten years. We're just getting to Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) in most installations, and GbE doesn't come close to using all of the bandwidth available in a Category 6 system."

That five-year horizon is just about right, according to DeWayne Anderson of Leviton Telcom, who provides insight into the way the customer - the IT manager - sees the world: "I would say copper will remain king for probably another three to five years.

"Ethernet has always provided an excellent migration path for the IT manager. If he had 10Base-T in place, and he wanted to have some new users on 100Base-T, the signaling was compatible. He could use the in-place unshielded twisted pair (UTP) cables. That's opposed to jumping to token ring or ATM or FDDI.

"Now, with 1,000Base-T - with the copper version of GbE - that gives a customer the next generation. It's a tenfold increase from 100Base-T. And it's an extension of that migration, in the customer's mind, via Ethernet.

"Given the advent of videoconferencing, and possibly TCP/IP phone applications - which are some of the things the customer may want to put over the LAN in the future - 1,000Base-T will provide ample bandwidth to support such applications.

"Let's look at it from the point of view of an IT manager in an engineering group inside of a company," Anderson continued. "These groups use CAD, and lots of CAD systems have a dedicated server. You might need 1,000Base-T for that engineering group, but once you jump off of that hub, an Ethernet system can automatically slow down and talk to the rest of the hubs - at 100Base-T or even 10Base-T.

"So from the customer's point of view, Ethernet offers the advantage of being able to inject high-speed, localized signaling amongst a group and still be compatible with everyone else in the building, for nonengineering, general day-to-day business use. It's a really valuable topology."
Fiber as a maybe

When told about the fiber-for-copper question asked in the Electrical Contractor seminar, Sue Smith, director of data communications at Pass & Seymour/Legrand - which sponsors frequent V/D/V meetings for electrical contractors - says she hears the same thing . . . only on a different level.

"I get a similar question in our seminars for contractors, but what I'm getting is 'Why are we doing wires at all when it is all going to wireless?' A lot of contractors, just from their own life experience, are wondering where all of these technologies are going."

Smith's perspective is that contractors thinking about installing fiber optics should first try to become systems integrators. "If the contracting firm has a system integrator on staff, and is more sophisticated, then they are in a position to talk about fiber optic networks," she notes.

"Many of the electrical contractors we talk with are within one or two years of having gone into the (V/D/V) business. They are building a base in the copper network infrastructure, but they are not yet into the system electronics. These contractors really aren't in a position to recommend to a client the conversion of a network from copper to fiber."

Over at Thomas & Betts - which is in the fiber optic business as well as copper - Robert Chase, marketing manager for the commercial wire management group, is excited about fiber optics. In fact, his presentation at the Electrical Contractor seminar was about fiber optic connectors.

"This isn't a commercial, but things like T&B's circumferential impact termination bring down the cost of fiber optic installations," says Chase. "We think you can go from four to six fiber optic terminations in a hour to 30. That helps!

"Even so, it's still a little bit premature to go with all fiber. The electronics needed (on the active side) for fiber optic are still very expensive, relative to copper - although this, too, is coming down in price."

Fiber definitely

While 10 of the manufacturers we contacted mostly have one foot in each camp - each company supporting copper and fiber networking - Siecor is on another planet. The company, the child of Siemens and Corning, is primarily in the fiber optic business.

"I'll try to be objective," says Martyn Easton of the company. "It's apparent to us that copper is getting more demanding, from an installation standpoint. As you move from Category 5e to 6 and 7, it's not getting any easier for an installer. In contrast, fiber installation continues to get easier, and quicker. There are connectors available now that eliminate the need for epoxy and polishing.

"Back in the summer, we did an informal survey among the contractors who are in Siecor's extended warranty program," Easton continues. "Most of them are not fiber-only specialists; they do a lot of work with copper. We asked them to comment on the labor cost for installing a network with copper or fiber.

"The answer came back: 'It doesn't matter what it costs - it's what we charge. And we would not charge any more (for the installation labor) for fiber optics than for copper.' This supports our thoughts, which is that it doesn't take any longer to do a fiber installation.

"If you are new to fiber, perhaps it does at first. But once a contractor gets on up the learning curve, there's really no difference. Going a bit further, there is the testing issue. Testing the sophisticated copper systems is involved, whereas testing a short-run horizontal fiber system is relatively simple. You know, you don't need an OTDR for a short run inside a building!"

Cat 5e vs. Cat 6

Most manufacturers are not Siecor, and most customers - at least for the time being - are not necessarily receptive to fiber optics. Even if one throws fiber optics out, there still are a number of options (see Table). What should a contractor recommend? Here are some interesting answers from the vendors:

Sue Smith, Pass & Seymour: "There is an element in the customer base that, because of having their own IT staff, are sophisticated enough to make a discrimination between the options. But most companies that electrical contractors serve don't have such a staff. What I would recommend to a friend working for such a company is Category 5E, because it is the fastest-possible industry-approved solution."

DeWayne Anderson, Leviton: "Category 5E. The incremental dollars and the connecting hardware are a very small percentage - perhaps only 10 to 15 percent - above Category 5. It's also capable of supporting 1,000Base-T. Sure, some users won't need all of the capacity in Category 5e right away, but it's always a good investment to have a little bit of headroom in the cable plant."

Todd Harpel, Hubbell Premise Wiring: "We'd go with Category 5E, unless the customer anticipates using the cabling system for the long term. Then we'd recommend Category 6. If you want to say it another way, you'd go with Category 5e if you don't anticipate exceeding Gigabit Ethernet."

Wayne Maniglia, national sales manager, Unicom: "Why not go with what is standardized? That's why you have to go with Category 5e - everything else isn't standardized. If you go with something else, how do you know what you are going to be dealing with now, or five years from now?"

Rick Akins, Panduit: "Category 6 is obviously something that we're pushing hard. We think there is definitely a benefit for Cat 6 over Cat 5e. From a contractor standpoint, though, the best performance copper cabling system that is a recognized standard is 5e. You're dealing with a technology that is standardized, has potential to go to GbE speeds, and the installation practices are better known."

Bob Carlson, marketing manager, Siemon: "We are confident in the performance of our products, which is why we guarantee any future application over Category 6 for 20 years, when installed by our certified contractors. Our product is such that we have headroom built in - even if the (Category 6) standard becomes more stringent, which is not likely. The end-user should be looking to the manufacturer to support the applications, to offer an assurance - to minimize their risk of installing a nonstandard system."

Paul Kish, Nordx/CDT: "Cat 5e is what Cat 5 should have been years ago. It's a major improvement over Cat 5, in terms of the new transmission parameters. It's going to be a more reliable channel for supporting applications all the way up to gigabit." On Category 6, Kish notes that "it buys you more bandwidth, but there are issues that need to be resolved and, in my opinion, it's going to take another 12 to 18 months" for Cat 6 to become an agreed-upon standard. "It's all right if you know what you are buying, and if the incremental pricing of Cat 6 is not significantly different."

Tony Beam, director of systems marketing at AMP: "Contractors should be advising their customers to strongly consider Category 6 and/or fiber for premises runs. Category 5e will support Gigabit Ethernet.

"In essence, for a customer that is in a leased building, or in a building he doesn't necessarily plan to occupy for a long period, he probably will not recoup an investment in something other than Cat 5e. He'll be leaving that building too soon to see the benefit of a higher-speed network, and Cat 5e will probably provide everything and anything he'll need in the next three to five years.

"But those clients who have a longer horizon, who are going to be in the same facility for longer than five years should be thinking about Category 6 or fiber."

Mike Barnick, Lucent: "It is clearly important when we reach high-speed networking that whatever is installed needs to be a complete, end-to-end solution, provided by a single vendor. It's critically important to the customer that all components are tuned and designed to one single vendor, to maximize the ability to transmit data information without losing bits in the process. This can happen due to incompatibility in the components. The sum of the parts can be less than the whole, if not developed to work together efficiently and properly."

Robert Chase, T&B: "Quite honestly, when we focus on electrical contractors, there is enough confusion for them, in trying to learn the terminology and the technology. We don't want to impart a different set of criteria other than what the EIA/TIA have established as a standard.

"That's why we're going to hang our hat on the Category 5e standard," he asserts. "As difficult as it is to wait for the standards process - which is slow, laborious, tedious, whatever you want to call it - we think contractors should wait for a system to become a standard before going forward."

What's next?

Electrical Contractor also asked manufacturers for a look at future developments. At Pass & Seymour/Legrand, Smith says they are including the residential market - home networks - in their present focus. "There is an opportunity there as well, and we're hearing from many contractors who tell me their customers are asking for a residential solution, for new construction," Smith recounts.

"Mostly it relates to new middle-range to custom to high-end homes, where the homeowner is a very network-savvy person, based on what he or she does in business. They want the data network at home to be at the level of their office: high-speed."

Siecor's Easton notes that customers don't have to choose between fiber and copper in new installations - they can have both. "You can run both fiber and copper to each work station,' he notes. " We're seeing runs with three copper sheathes and one of fiber to each desk. You can't really have a fiber-only network, because you still need copper for voice, at least right now. But with this arrangement, you've put fiber in place, so the system can upgraded later."

At Siemon, they've already moved on to Category 7, according to Bob Carlson: "We have developed a new Category 7 product. We call it the Tera connector, for terabit. It has become the first standardized non-RJ-45 interface. It's very well accepted, especially in the German market."

[Category 7 differs from previous categories in that it will run over shielded twisted pair (STP) cable. STP is more prevalent in Europe than in North America.]

"We haven't yet begun to market it in the U.S.," Carlson continues, "but when we do, we'll talk about the capabilities it has for multiple applications over one four-pair cable. You can do two-pair high-speed LAN, video, and voice applications over one four-pair cable. There's a potential for a significant cost savings - with less cable, fewer connectors, and higher performance."

The boom is not over

Beating the drum for a boom was Lucent's Barnick. "From the point of view of Electrical Contractor magazine's readership, our perspective here is that we're approaching a tremendous growth in data communications." By tremendous growth, Barnick means that what we've seen so far in the V/D/V market is far from the end of the story.

"Yes, the growth we've seen so far is not as exciting as what we're going to see," Barnick claims. "Here's the reasoning behind that: We're only now beginning to see the explosion that's taking place in the global network - the upgrades in fiber optic transport media. We're putting in new overlay long-haul optical networks.

"Couple that with increasing performance and bandwidth in the access network, and we will see tremendous demands placed on the business LANs. The way business is going to operate in the next five years will be very different. We will see increases in Internet activity, remote access to company intranets, and changes in customer buying patterns via the Internet.

"All of this will create an explosion of data networking requirements, growth in data networking applications, and data networking needs. It's an exciting time for the contractor community to increase their knowledge level in voice and data communications, and to become savvy and ready to support this explosion that's going to take place."

Perhaps a fitting postscript to that assessment comes from Chase of T&B: "A lot of electrical contractors are still trying to understand the importance of the data communications market. But the one thing our company tells them is: Don't wait! The best way to see what is happening is to get involved now. In this market, at this time, he who does hesitate is truly lost."

BIO:

SALIMANDO is a Vienna, Va.-based freelance writer specializing in electrical, voice/data/video construction, and integrated technology issues. He can be reached by e-mail at JSALI@cris.com. Twice monthly, he also writes the "Web Prowler" column on Electrical Contractor magazine's Web site: www.ecmag.com

Table One
Customer Options For Horizontal Network Installations

Established Maximum A Recognized Gigabit
Level Speed Standard? Ethernet? Status
Category 3 16 MHz Yes No For voice only
Level 5 200 MHz No No Anixter proprietary
Category 5 100 MHz Yes Not For voice, too
recommended
Category 5e 100 MHz Yes Yes Newly approved
VIP 1000 155 MHz No Yes Graybar proprietary
Level 6 350 MHz No Maybe Anixter proprietary
NEMA 250 MHz Yes* Maybe Just for the cables
Category 6 200 MHz Not yet Yes Standard in 2001?
VIP 2000 TBA*** No Yes Not yet publicized
Level 7 400 MHz No Yes Anixter proprietary
NEMA 750 MHz Yes** Yes Just for the cables.
Category 7 600 MHz Not yet Yes Someday?
Fiber Optics 1,500 MHz **** Yes

Source: Electrical Contractor research, with assistance from Jim Hayes of Cable U.

Notes:

Category 5 is not recommended for Gigabit Ethernet
** NEMA standards are just for the cables, not for a V/D/V system
*** Graybar has announced that there will be a VIP 2000 standard, but has not publicly said what it will cover as yet
**** There are a number of standards in fiber optics, according to Hayes