As with any project, a communications cabling project requires comprehensive management. Project management for cabling or related networks is best understood when broken into five subtopics: Planning, Design, Installation, Testing and Operation. These five areas are equally important and interrelated because the success of each stage depends on proper execution of the preceding one.
Equally important is that there is a small group who is intimately familiar with the entire project from start to finish. The members should understand the scope of the project and be involved in the process from beginning to end. Ideally, the group should involve representatives from the customer, network user and contractor. Coordination among all the parties is highly important because the team members will make decisions throughout the process that affect the project.
Planning begins with specifying which types of communications signals the cabling is intended to carry and where the cabling will be installed. Planning is where the project begins, and everything from that point on depends on having documented the details completely and correctly.
Cable plant documentation involves much more than the pages of data created when the project is finished. Often documentation is thought of as the last step in a project, but it should actually be the first step in the planning process.
Documentation begins at the planning stage with the scope of work (SOW) created by the project’s user or customer initiator; the SOW defines the overall goals of the project. That project may include cabling to support a computer local area network, security systems, fire and life safety systems, building management systems, and much more. If it is new construction, it may be part of the larger document package defined by the MasterFormat system and will require working with the architects and engineers on designing the overall project.
A well-written SOW can do more for the success of a project than any other part of the contracting process. It must be clear, complete and logical enough for everyone involved in the project to understand it. The SOW should be expanded as part of the project development to include all design and contractual performance requirements.
Because it describes the performance details of the project installation, the SOW will eventually become the yardstick against which the contractor’s performance is measured. That is why the user’s project initiator, contract administrator or subject matter expert should be the focal point for developing the scope of work but should include input from the contractor (if design/build) or contractors (if open-bid) and various manufacturers whose products will be used.
Finally, owners should choose contractors as early in the project as possible, ideally during the planning stage. The contractor brings a lot to the team in experience that the end-users do not have, and the contractor can make the project easier to manage, more trouble-free and less expensive.
Design tackles the practical aspects of the system and focuses on the details. An estimator I have worked with likes to say that your best tools for the first stage of design are your eyes and feet, which means you should walk—or drive, if it’s a long outside plant (OSP) link—and observe the actual path of the cabling system you are designing. You should also take pictures so you can remember or notice details later you missed in person.
Where exactly will the cable be routed? If outside plant cables are included, one will need to know if the cables will run underground, be direct-buried or aerial. Indoor cables may actually be more complex. They can be horizontal or riser and can be routed inside plenums, elevator shafts and walls as well as through floor or firewall penetrations. Indoor cables require pathways—conduits or ducts, cable trays, J-hooks or other routing devices. What kinds of patch panels, boxes or outlets will the project need, and where will they be placed? Of course, there are many more details to consider, such as power for the communications electronics and data-quality grounds.
You probably will need to deal with local building and fire codes. Knowing where the cabling will be run is just the beginning. You may need permits from local authorities or permission for using utility poles, municipal conduits or for trenching. You may encounter other similar installation issues. In a new building, expect to spend a lot of time coordinating with the architects and engineers on the project, and expect that they’ll need to learn from you about cabling and communications systems.
Now is also the time to start specifying components. How many and what kinds of cables do you need? Both copper and fiber have several performance-grade options that depend on the system types the cabling will support. Higher grades may allow for future updates but cost more in the beginning. Fiber is only a fraction of the cost of fiber optic cables, so having extra fibers—a mix of multimode and single-mode—is always advisable. NEC cable ratings for flammability have to be decided at this point.
Besides cables, you have to specify other support hardware—such as connectors, patch panels, racks, etc.—that are appropriate to the project. Copper cabling needs to be specified to be all the same grade to maintain performance. Fiber types need to be consistent and connectors chosen for compatibility with the networking electronics.
There are other issues often not considered in the design phase, especially reliability and ease of use. Consider the locations of cable and associated hardware, especially in terms of its vulnerability to damage. Cables should be isolated from potential harm and identified to prevent damage from users’ mistakes. Consider how it could be repaired, if necessary.
Here is where the small group managing the project comes into play. The customer or network user often needs the help of an experienced contractor so the decision to be a design/build project starts making sense. Few network or building owners are sufficiently familiar with cabling and systems to make good decisions on their own. Sometimes architects and engineers aren’t either. An experienced cabling contractor can make the project much easier if brought in early enough in the design phase.
The result of the design project should be what most people expect from a design: documents and drawings that carefully and thoroughly document the actual project defined in the SOW. Now, the installation is ready to begin.
If a contractor wasn’t involved in the first two steps, this is where one would need to come in. Sometimes, the owner will create a request for quote from the SOW and look for the low bidder. However, the wise owner looks at more than cost.
The contractor should have relevant experience and good references, and the chosen company should be financially stable. Since the contractor, manager and customer have to work closely together, personal compatibility and mutual respect are also good criteria.
Then one starts purchasing components; again, I recommend using criteria other than just the lowest bids. The cabling world is flooded with counterfeit and poor-quality components. Copper cable made with copper-clad aluminum wire and flammable plastic jackets are well-documented. Cheap copper jacks and both fiber optic and copper patchcords that have poor performance are selling at cheap prices. Know your sources, and beware of prices that are too good to be true.
When you are getting ready to begin installation, review safety procedures with the other contractors and installers, and post safety information on the work site. Require notifications of safety violations or incidents.
As soon as the project begins, there must be designated personnel on both sides—customer and contractor—who are responsible for getting the work done and communicating the project status. The customer cannot tell the contractor to go to work and forget about the work being done. Likewise, the contractor cannot expect the customer to disappear until the project is over. The two groups must communicate continuously about how the project is going and what changes may be needed to the original SOW.
The installation is finished when the cabling is installed in a neat and workmanlike manner, all testing shows the cabling meets specifications, the documentation is completed, and the customer and contractor sit down to review the entire SOW and agree the job is completed. What happens if some cables fail testing? They must be fixed, of course, and troubleshooting can be a time-consuming and expensive task.
Operating the cabling network
The proof of the installation is installing and using the communications equipment. That may involve the cabling contractor or an information technology/network contractor, depending on the project. For the most part, the cable plant requires no maintenance, so untrained users should not be allowed to touch the cable plant once the network is operational.
Once the communications systems are operating, there may be moves, adds and changes (MACs) as people and equipment move or are upgraded, but the customer should be warned that even a simple patchcord move is capable of damaging the system. MACs should only be performed by personnel who know how to handle cabling, and any changes need to be reflected in the documentation.