In the midst of today’s technological revolution, the virtually endless potential of the voice/data/video (VDV) market is the one aspect that remains constant. Even when new construction does eventually slow down, the need for information and the demand for faster data transmission will continue to rise.

“Every indication is that this segment of the industry is extremely young and, as technology continues to advance, there is no end in sight,” says John Karel, RCDD, vice president of operations for Applied Business Communications (AB Comm), St. Paul, Minn.

Hunt Electric Corp., to counter the perception that electrical contractors are not necessarily trained to perform this kind of low-voltage work, formed AB Comm as a separate company in 1995. AB Comm specializes in low-voltage installations, including telephone, cable television (CATV), local area networks (LANs), wide area networks (WANs), telecommunication backbones, fiber optic installations, computer networks, uninterrupted power supply (UPS) systems, and network equipment.

The new company immediately began working in the retrofit market with existing customers from Hunt Electric. “Between 1995 and today, the demand for upgrades from Cat. 3 to Cat. 5E cable and above has grown along with customers’ needs for faster data transmission,” Karel said.

At least 60 percent of the company’s business is derived from VDV retrofit projects. “Once a space is occupied, there is a constant need for cabling moves, adds, and changes (MACs), and the cabling infrastructures themselves have limited life spans,” Karel said.

Baker Electric, Inc., Des Moines, Iowa, formed its VDV division just last year. “Probably the most popular area of voice/ data /video retrofit work is in re-wiring facilities to be able to handle higher speed data transmissions,” said President David Hearn.

Hearn projects that in its first year, the new division will account for about 10 percent of the company’s total business, and that retrofit projects will account for 2 to 3 percent of total VDV sales. “My personal belief is that this particular part of the electrical industry has as much potential as traditional electrical work has seen since its inception.”

What retrofit entails

Besides MACs and adhering to changing standards for new cabling such as Category 6, VDV retrofit projects entail working around customers in an existing facility. “You have to keep the existing network operational until the retrofit is completed and the old system is ready to be de-installed,” Karel said.

Contractors working in this market segment also have to deal with telecommunication closets and spaces that are too small for all of the necessary new cabling.

“We are forced to solve such challenges by performing cut-overs or running patch cords to existing equipment on the weekends or after business hours to ensure that the customer’s business does not suffer,” Karel said.

“Working on voice/data/video retrofit projects entails learning what kind of connectivity fits the customers’ needs, including the brand names of cabling they might prefer,” Hearn said. A major part of this kind of work, he added, is assessing the facility and planning how to transition from the old to the new telecommunication system without disrupting the customer’s flow of business. “In addition, the successful voice/data/ video retrofit contractor must be able to prepare the facility not only for the current upgrade, but for future growth,” Hearn said.

VDV market has unique needs

It has become evident in recent years that the VDV market has markedly different training, skills, and customer requirements than traditional electrical contracting has. For electricians in the field, Hearn emphasizes the need for training in the latest technologies and for fully understanding fiber optics, including terminations, bend radii, and testing procedures and documentation.

AB Comm trains its staff not only through local Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (JATC) programs, but also in customer etiquette and company policies and procedures. “It is important to ensure that the work performed is of high quality, uniform, and thoroughly documented,” Karel explained.

Customer requirements in the VDV market, both for new construction and for retrofit work, are unique to each one.

“However,” Hearn said, “the most important requirement customers have is that the electrical contractor performing the work has the knowledge and expertise to provide a total solution for their telecommunication needs.”

Karel agreed. “A major customer requirement is that the electrical contractor has a professional staff that will perform the work with a minimum of disruption.”

Entering the VDV market

“Electrical contractors that wish to break into the voice/data/video market must be willing to invest in training and in hiring qualified personnel,” said Karel.

Other factors include a willingness to be flexible and the ability to adjust to constant schedule changes. Also, it requires being extremely service- and customer-oriented, remembering that the investments made are for the long-term. “The voice/data/video industry is different from traditional electrical construction in that it involves more smaller, fast-paced projects that require a lot of juggling.”

VDV technology is constantly changing, creating a vast number of opportunities for electrical contractors who are willing to make the investment. “Any business that is going to succeed in the coming years must have a structured cabling infrastructure, which means countless opportunities for electrical contractors to enter the market and to thrive,” concludes Hearn.

BREMER, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., can be reached at (410) 394-6966 or by
e-mail at dbremer@erols.com.