Multimedia applications have just taken over networks. Long gone are the days when the most taxing task for any network was moving data files through itself. Fast-forward to the new era of doing business––video teleconferencing, unified messaging, graphic-intense PowerPoint presentations, streaming media coverage––the list is seemingly endless.

Before things became so fuzzy and ever-evolving, Category 3 was used for voice, Category 5 for data and, if you had a customer with some major initial public offering (IPO) or venture capital funding, you could ultimately sell him or her a comprehensive, yet costly, fiber-to-the-desk solution. But, most of our customers need to know the bottom-line figure (with at least an up-front “guesstimate” of potential moves, adds and changes) and assurance that they will get a return on their investments. The client has most likely done ample amounts of research well before making initial contact.

All of this has helped forever change the proactive role a contractor must take. One needs to stay at least one step ahead and think in much broader terms to remain competitive, especially when dealing with structured cabling. Since just one type of cable is no longer enough, contractors have had to learn to be flexible and creative in their solutions.

Many people still believe it is wise to pull both copper and fiber cable at once, especially when cabling a facility that will use various multimedia applications. By creating a hybrid cabling solution right off the bat, contractors can avoid potential problems.

There is still a never-ending debate that pits multimode against single-mode fiber. Multimode seems to have the disadvantage of bandwidth and distance limitations, but it has been more widely used by companies due to the lower price of electronics that connect to it. This makes contractors more comfortable with it.

It seems as if single-mode will ultimately prevail in this fiber versus fiber war, but until the high cost of associated single-mode electronics comes down enough to satisfy end users and purchasing decision makers, multimode will continue to be used in most cases. For pure capabilities, single-mode wins hands down with its higher bandwidth and greater distance capabilities.

Actually, a combination of Category 5e, multimode and single-mode fiber would be ideal. If you’re pulling cable through anyway, why not throw one more in for good measure? The option always remains to leave the single-mode fibers dark for future use. This can be a project-winning option, especially if your customers have already felt the pain of cable upgrade.

The standard train of thought is that the cabling infrastructure only accounts for roughly 2 percent of a networks total cost. If contractors can drive that point home, they could probably, quite easily, help convince customers that spending more for better-quality cable up front will save them time, money and hassles in the long run. All contractors know the headaches involved in cable replacement in a fully functioning, fully occupied facility. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone understood that?

Perhaps the most ideal hybrid solution for a cabling infrastructure that is inherently designed to support the vast array of multimedia applications would be a combination of single-mode fiber and Category 5e (enhanced) copper.

This may be raising many internal red flags, and rightly so. People are wondering, “What about Category 6? Level 7?” These are most likely completely accurate points. But, as is the case with all things that seem just too good to be true, there is one small glitch when discussing copper cable that has capabilities over and above that of 5e––standards.

Standards have always been a key element, and they most certainly always will be. End users always request written system certification, sometimes even before the last jack has been punched down. Since Category 5e is the highest level of copper cable that has specific and widely accepted standards associated with it, upgrading to non-regulated cables like Category 6 or 7 make things such as certification seem almost impossible. This is not to say that the more sophisticated copper cables being installed are not up to snuff. It is merely an observation that gives contractors some food for thought.

By closely examining a client’s environment, future plans and current needs, you will be able to devise a mutually acceptable solution to unforeseen problems associated with multimedia applications. Your customers look to you for not only your technical expertise, but for your opinions and suggestions as well. The knowledge base already exists within almost every contractor; it just takes a little more effort to piece together the puzzle. EC

STONG is the enterprise developer at G. R. Sponaugle & Sons, Inc. in Pennsylvania. She can be reached at 717.564.1515 or via e-mail at jennifer.stong@grsponaugle.com.