Preparing for future cabling needs:

In the early 1960s, when I was in high school, my family finally got our own phone line, not a shared “party” line; soon afterward, my brother and I decided we’d like to have our own telephone, rather than share the one in the family room. Our parents said it was too expensive to rent another phone from AT&T, and the phone company supposedly could tell you had illegal phones by checking the phone lines. It did not take long to figure out that since the phone worked on a current loop, the only way they could detect a second phone was by the change in impedance caused by a second ringer. Soon we had several phones in the house, but only one, the one AT&T owned, had a ringer! So not long after, our house had three phones, one TV that received three broadcast stations and a couple of radios.

My kids grew up in a house where there were three computers networked over Category 5 cabling run through holes in the walls. They were first sharing a phone line and later a cable modem for Internet access, and we had two phone lines and more than 100 TV channels. Now, the kids are off on their own. They demand high-speed connections to the Internet at home, and my wife, Karen, and I can access their wireless network when we visit.

Karen and I live in a house we remodeled with structured cabling for an Ethernet network with 16 drops covering our home office and every room in the house. We have five computers, one wireless access point, broadband Internet access through a cable modem, one landline for phone and one voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) line, digital CATV with three TVs (one HDTV), and a number of radios. Since we live in a mountainous area in California with poor radio reception, we often use Internet audio streaming to listen to radio, sometimes listening to the same stations we liked when we lived in Boston. Our next project will be “fiber to the barn!”

Having lived through all these generations of technology and actually being involved in developing some of it, it has always seemed obvious to us that new homes should be designed around current and future needs for these high-tech devices. Homebuilders, however, have been hard to convince of the need or, more precisely, the payback of installing cabling in new homes.

However, homebuilders are now seriously considering installing cabling in new homes to support networking PCs, home theater, automation and security systems. It has taken a long time getting to this point, because most of the arguments in favor offered by vendors of home cabling have been technology based (i.e., “hype”). Since the direction technology moves is hard to predict, cautious developers have been reluctant to promote home networking lest it become obsolete quickly.

But developments such as Verizon’s FIOS fiber-to-the-home service have been changing their minds. The biggest influence is in areas where Verizon is offering very high-speed Internet connections, HDTV and even phone over its fiber connections. Homeowners need better cabling inside the home to take advantage of these services. In other areas, the majority of new homes now have access to some broadband service (cable modem or DSL), and many have multiple personal computers in the home, sharing the service.

Once broadband access to the Internet is available, new services become practical, such as downloads of music and video. These services have become highly popular with the younger set (and an old techie like me who has more than 3,500 songs and a half-dozen books on his iPod and who catches the highlights of Formula 1 races on YouTube). If the home includes multiple users downloading these large audio and video files, not only do users in the home need a connection, the bandwidth available inside the home also needs to be high enough to accommodate these downloads. Soon, most of the video and audio downloads will be saved on a media server that can distribute content to any location in the home.

Most adults have had networks sharing resources such as files, high-speed Internet access and printers at work for years, so they are familiar with their capabilities and usage. Kids have similar access at school and expect to have it at home. In fact, often the party most unfamiliar with computer networking is the homebuilder.

Where we live in Southern California, the average home sells for half-a-million bucks, developments have thousands of homes and developers are good at marketing. They look for trends that help them sell more homes in a competitive market and make more profit. At a meeting for homebuilders on technology trends, one executive at a major developer told me they have begun aggressively marketing home cabling. When they sell a home, they offer upgrades. A granite kitchen counter costs around $5,000, but the developer only makes about $500 profit—that’s 10 percent. Many potential buyers ask about cabling for their computers, home theater or security systems. Adding structured cabling can add $7,500 to $15,000 to the selling price of the house, but the cost to install it is only about $2,500. Which do you think this homebuilder prefers: 10 percent profit on $5,000 or 67 percent profit on $7,500?

Another movement in Southern California is for home cabling to be required by building codes. The first city to require this was Loma Linda, home to a number of medial facilities that wanted to have high-speed connections. Loma Linda officials found the phone and CATV companies unresponsive, so they expanded their own city network to offer fiber connections to businesses and homes. They rewrote their building codes to require every new home to offer a fiber-to-the-home connection and to include structured cabling within the home. It has proven very popular with both homebuilders and buyers. Many other cities in California are watching Loma Linda, planning to revise their own building codes also.

Why would one install what seems like expensive cabling when so many alternatives exist? For network connections, you can choose between unshielded twisted pair (UTP) cabling, optical fiber, wireless, phone lines, power lines and even connections over CATV or satellite coax cable.

Some manufacturers are turning to optical fiber to overcome the bandwidth limitations of wireless and copper cable as well as to prevent interference. If the home has a central communications and entertainment system, delivering multimedia programming around the house can be a problem due to distance. The new HDMI cable for both video and audio is limited to about 15 feet due to the bandwidth needed for HDTV. Vendors offer optical fiber HDMI interfaces for connecting remote large screen displays for HDTV and computer monitors.

Wireless options keep expanding. Besides Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, we now have WiMax, Zigbee and Z-max. Each is aligned to a specific application area; there is a lot of crossover in applications, and I must admit to being confused by some of the choices. In fact, the biggest problem with making a commitment to wireless is the continual churning of standards—what you buy today is guaranteed to be obsolete in a few months. The biggest drawback to wireless is the uncertainty of having enough bandwidth. Two PCs streaming HDTV will need about 45 MB/s, barely possible with current or proposed wireless technology.

A new coax system, called MoCA, uses the high-frequency capability of CATV or satellite coax cable by transmitting network signals at around 100 Mb/s on the frequencies above all television signals. This makes sure the network communications do not interfere with TV. MoCA is supported by big communications companies such as Motorola and Cisco, CATV operator Comcast and satellite TV provider Ecostar, plus sales outlet Radio Shack.

The MoCA alliance claims to have more than 1 million connections in use, but they have not had a high profile at home technology shows. Neither has networking over phone lines or power cables. All these options typify technology development: if it can be done, it will be done, but what do you do with it?

The goal of many of these systems is to provide electronic hardware, which you can use for networking without any modification to the house, an obvious goal for existing structures. However, all have disadvantages as well, mostly dependent on the house itself. Wireless has problems with distance and interference from such common household devices as garage door openers. Power line networking has problems with some types of electrical devices causing interference. The coax networking system has problems with large coax systems that have amplifiers for signal level boost.

Looking at it from the electronics side, virtually all systems support structured cabling with UTP. Beside connecting computers to each other and the Internet, common Cat 5e or Cat 6 UTP cable can be used for security systems such as video surveillance cameras or entry systems and home automation systems. Vendors even offer CATV over UTP products. This seems to be the one cabling type that every service supports.

The most logical solution for new homes is to include UTP structured cabling for voice, data and security as well as coax cable for video. FCC rules now require that the builder use at least Cat 3 UTP for phones, so an upgrade to Cat 5, even installing two cables to each outlet, is a no-brainer. To make installation simpler, most cable vendors offer bundled cables, usually with two coax and two UTP cables and with options to include optical fiber. We used this cable in wiring our own home during a remodel. The installer found it as fast and easy to install this four-cable bundle as a single one, greatly reducing installation costs.

Many new homes will be wired with UTP cable capable of supporting networking. However, the options on cabling homes are so numerous that some homebuilders are simply putting in conduit to allow pulling cables in at a later date. This allows the homeowner and equipment suppliers to decide what connection methods work best for them at the time the equipment is installed, not a bad decision when technology is changing so rapidly.

The cabling content of today’s new home construction is increasing to accommodate homeowners’ needs and desires for high-tech gadgetry. The potential income of installing home cabling at the same time as electrical wiring is making many contractors take another look at residential cabling as part of their business model, especially in large home developments. Perhaps it’s time to familiarize yourself with your local market, suppliers’ offerings and the potential for new business.    EC

HAYES is a writer and trainer in cabling who works from a high-tech office in his home in the mountains of Southern California. Find him at www.jimhayes.com.