You’ve probably heard it. You might have even said it. “Wireless will be the death knell for structured cabling.”
While wireless is certainly infiltrating many sectors of the commercial/industrial/institutional (CII) realm, electrical contractors (ECs) worried that structured cabling is on the way out are discovering the reality may be just the opposite.
“The interesting thing about wireless is: who says it’s wireless?”said Michael M. Bunning, general manager of the low-voltage division of Glenwood Electric Inc. in Walton, Ky. “I have to put a piece of wire in for 98 percent of the access points I install.”
Good point. Every one of those little Wi-Fi units hanging in the ceiling has a cable running back to the closet, so wireless requires its share of wiring.
“We’ve actually done more work because of wireless,” said Ken Dunn, group manager at Integrated Systems Group, a division of Oregon Electric Group in Portland, Ore.
In a wonderful twist, that uptick in business is due to those wireless-loving mobile devices we all carry. More wireless access points are always on the to-do list because “everybody not only has a laptop, but they need to hook up their smartphones, their tablets and everything else,” Dunn said.
Those users have to get access somewhere, and if it isn’t a hard cable, then it is through a wired wireless access point.
With today’s network architectures and needs, wireless is playing an important role, but it is largely that of a valuable partner and not a replacement.
“Each has their place,” Bunning said of the benefits of both old fashioned cables and slick new wireless systems. Some structures don’t lend themselves to wireless, and there are a handful of industries where privacy and security mandates make cables a better solution. Even sectors that are big fans of wireless still rely heavily on wiring. An upcoming public school project demonstrates a typical ratio.
“We’re putting in almost 60 wireless access points and 500 cable drops,” Bunning said.
In some cases, conventional cables have actually become more crucial.
“You have voice over IP [Internet protocol] phones that typically require [power over Ethernet] connections,” Dunn said.
Such a situation is both increasingly popular and outside of the current capabilities of most off-the-shelf wireless components. The good news for electrical contractors is that it’s yet another example of wireless adding to the revenue stream rather than taking from it.
If you are still giving wireless the evil eye, remember that it is at a disadvantage when compared to structured cabling. The truth is—wait for it—that size really does matter. The size of a building’s bandwidth, that is.
“Wireless has historically always been behind in terms of the bandwidth available,” Bunning said. “You can get a lot more data down a pipe that’s hardwired than you can on wireless. That has always been true, and I don’t see it changing.”
Connected users—no matter how or where they get their access—are bandwidth hogs, and wireless still trails physical cabling when it comes to delivering the big ol’ pipe today’s applications need to function without suffering from performance problems.
If your organization has resisted getting involved in wireless network support, it may be time to reconsider. The technology landscape is constantly changing, and the complexities involved in successfully integrating multiple systems means customers need more help than ever, not less. If your firm can bring wireless network expertise to the table, it could mean the difference between landing a project and watching it go to a competitor.
“That’s what’s going to set you apart,” Dunn said, adding that customers are increasingly using it as a criteria to select contractors, and he said his team has already seen requests for proposals that call for electrical contractors to act as a system design partner.
Dunn suggested a couple of strategies that ECs may find useful in maximizing the revenue they see from the wireless revolution.
“Stay current on what customers’ needs are and how you can support them,” he said.
One way his team does this is by working through layouts to figure out where the access points need to go for best coverage. It’s part of the service that customers expect no matter how savvy their internal IT team is.
“If you stay ahead of the curve, it generates more work,” he said.
Beware, though, that educating yourself about network and system design isn’t best handled in piecemeal fashion, Bunning said.
“In terms of cherry-picking, don’t. If you want to get into it, educate yourself and do it right,” Bunning said.
A range of sources are available for information and training. Component manufacturers, such as Cisco and Hewlett-Packard, offer educational sessions and data on hardware specifications and requirements, and BICSI is an excellent source of information, training and credentialing.