The diverse future of structured cabling:

Talk to the old soldiers of the structured cabling industry about their careers, and a few related themes often come to the surface; they usually say things such as, “Cabling has changed so much over the years. It’s really been exciting to be a part of it all.” Then they will often follow quickly with something like, “But you know, I’m as excited about the future of our industry as I have ever been!” Truer words could not be spoken about the current state of structured cabling. Four areas in particular have significant influence or offer considerable opportunity in the business of structured cabling.

10 gigabit cabing

Structured cabling stories about 10 gigabit over Ethernet currently catch the most attention. Networking capacity continues to grow with insatiable ferocity, and a new generation of multimedia applications using simultaneous video, voice and data transmission is creating unprecedented demands.

Category 6, or Class E, cabling was designed with nearly double the bandwidth of Category 5e for gigabit Ethernet (1,000 Base-T, 1,000 Mbps or 1 Gbps), which has a maximum specified frequency of 250 MHz.

Since it is impossible to run 10 Gbps over 100 meters of Category 6, a new cable standard, called Category 6a (augmented Category 6) has been created, and its TIA standards are still in development. So there are now three kinds of Category 6 cable: the original Category 6 that is specified to 250 MHz; Category 6e, with extended characterization of Category 6 cable up to 500 MHz; and Category 6a, which is a new Category 6 cable for 10 gigabit over UTP (10 GBase-T), defined up to 625 MHz.

Gigabit Ethernet desktop connections and 10 gigabit backbones are becoming common requirements for many organizations, while 10 Gbps unshielded twisted pair (UTP) connections will be initially implemented in data centers and low-rise backbones and for mission-critical applications.

But no one thinks that even 10 gigabit over UTP will satisfy the marketplace’s neverending hunger for faster networks and more bandwidth. Generally, structured cabling has a useful life of 10 to 15 years, but most active network equipment—including computers, servers, Ethernet switches, routers and hubs—has a typical useful life of three to five years. As a result, the structured cabling installed today must outlive at least three generations of networking equipment upgrades.

Therefore, the challenge for project owners (and the electrical contractors who advise them) will continue to be determining what is adequate when deciding the grade of cable to install in a new network infrastructure that must function for such a period of time.

Wireless

Many of us can remember movies showing futuristic, “high-tech” wireless devices that are now commonplace. Remember Robin Williams’ flip-phone in the 1991 movieHook?” Wireless over Ethernet has definitely arrived, but there is a lot more of it to come.

In-Stat, a digital communication market research service of Reed Business Information, reported in December 2006 that more than 75 percent of businesses in 2006 had at least one wireless data application and that the use of wireless data applications continues to grow across multiple applications and all vertical market segments. While notebook computers are now commonplace, smartphones—which integrate the functionality of mobile phones with personal digital assistants (PDAs) and/or other information appliances—are in a position to play an increasingly important role.

There are plenty of other wireless technologies to look for in the future. Alexander Resources, a Texas-based research, consulting and education firm specializing in wireless communications, reports use of new wireless technologies for machine-to-machine (M2M) communications will greatly improve and expand M2M business applications. Wireless technologies will create significant revenue opportunities for cellular, WLAN and WPAN equipment manufacturers, service providers and application developers.

Alexander Resources further predicts that the number of cellular M2M connections will eventually overtake the number of cell phones in North America, Western Europe and Japan, and wireless local area networks (LANs) will prove popular for a wide range of M2M and telematics applications. The worldwide market for wireless M2M communications will grow from $24 billion in 2004 to an estimated $270 billion by 2010.

In the meantime, millions of wireless nodes have already been installed worldwide, and the advent of mesh-enabled, large-scale wireless networks means more structured cabling opportunities for electrical contractors.

Power over Ethernet

The next major head-turner in the world of structured cabling is power over Ethernet (PoE), which provides power to an end device—e.g., Internet protocol (IP) telephone, wireless LAN access point or other device—via the data or spare pairs of an Ethernet cable. Though the IEEE Standards Board approved the PoE Standard (IEEE 802.3af-2003) in June 2003, PoE began to come into its own in 2006 and appears to be gaining market presence at full power in 2007.

One of the most obvious benefits of PoE is the significant cost savings that results from not having to install separate Ethernet and power cables, be it for a desktop phone or a remote outdoor security camera mount. When used in conjunction with a centralized uninterruptible power supply (UPS), PoE ensures continuous operation during power failures, which has tremendous benefits for IP telephony, security, access control and building automation services that are all migrating toward Ethernet. Furthermore, devices can be efficiently rebooted/reset or shut down remotely from the convenience and safety of a network telecommunications room.

Current PoE standard accounts for delivery of 15.4W per port at a nominal 48V DC over UTP wiring, including Category 5, 5e and 6 media, as well as patch panels, outlets and connecting hardware. A “higher-power over Ethernet,” or “PoE Plus,” standard is in the works (IEEE 802.3at), with an anticipated publication date in the second quarter of 2008. It will permit 30–50 watts of power to each powered device (PD), and perhaps more, to support higher-voltage applications.

The DC power is injected into the cabling by end-span power sourcing equipment (PSE) at the data terminal equipment (DTE), or by midspan power at cross-connection points along the way. The power is used by a PD located at the end of the channel.

Endspan PSEs are composed of Ethernet switches with embedded power supplies for delivering both power and data and are compatible with 10 Base-T, 100 Base-TX or 1,000 Base-T data transmissions. Midspan PSEs are stand-alone hubs or patch panels between the PDs and existing, nonpowered switches or routers. Midspan PSEs do not support 1,000 Base-T transmissions because they contribute additional connections in signal paths, which can terminate data signals.

Venture Development Corp., a Massachusetts-based technology market research and strategy firm, predicts 140 million endspan PSE port shipments worldwide for 2006 and 175 million in 2007.

Residential cabling

Residential structured cabling continues to provide good income to many electrical contractors (ECs), for whom there is plenty of ongoing opportunity. Research suggests while many new homeowners move into homes with preinstalled structured cabling, there still remain homebuilders—and their ECs—who miss out on the opportunity to profit from providing this feature.

Experts predict plenty of opportunity in the near future for electrical contractors that choose to participate in the in-home structured cabling market. Parks Associates, a digital and home networking research firm based in Dallas, predicts the U.S. in-home structured cabling system market to grow from $580 million in 2005 to $900 million by 2008. The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) advises its members that there is money to be made in this market, and 33 percent of builders surveyed said that their revenue from home technology products had increased in 2005, up from 24 percent during the prior year. The good news for ECs is few builders install home tech products themselves, with a strong majority (67 percent) using electrical contractors.

Despite the opportunity for increased profit on new home sales, the NAHB also reports that only 49 percent of surveyed builders installed structured cabling in 2005, down from 61 percent in 2004, because of advances in wireless technology. Eighty-three percent of builders offered structured wiring to their buyers in 2004, but that dropped to 82 percent one year later, with half of them offering it as a standard feature and the other half as an option.

On the positive side, 32 percent of homebuyers said they did not buy structured wiring simply because it was not offered by their builders. With 40 million total residential broadband subscribers in the United States (representing just under 35 percent of total households), this remains an area of significant potential growth. That number will continue grow through the remainder of 2007 and beyond.

Consider, for instance, the growth of residential voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) and fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) technologies. By the end of 2006, the residential broadband IP telephony market is expected to have approximately 5 million residential subscribers, and that number is predicted to reach more than 19 million in 2010. FTTH was estimated to be in more than 1 million homes in 656 U.S. communities by 2006, with expected exponential growth. These are but two technologies that will function optimally in structurally cabled homes, which means a great number of homes will be in need of structured cabling in coming months and years.

A growing majority of electrical contractors consider low-voltage cabling to be a significant and important part of their businesses, while shrinking minority of others don’t do low--voltage work, avoiding it when they can and contracting it out when they must. Then there are those in between, who can and will do it—albeit begrudgingly—but prefer to stick with traditional electrical work whenever possible.

The ever-expanding world of structured cabling can provide plenty of business and income opportunity for electrical contractors, but ECs can profit only if they opt to do the work.                EC

MUNYAN is a freelance writer in the Kansas City, Kan. area, specializing in business writing and telecommunications. He can be reached at www.russwrites.com.