Published In April 2000
While e-mail and the Internet have become common, the real changes brought about by high-speed data transmission are just entering the market, bringing tremendous opportunities. Perhaps the greatest change is the move away from thinking of discrete systems for communications, data, and audio and towards new systems, where everything is data. While high-voltage contracting will continue as a specialty, structured cabling will carry information from many divergent fields. Few companies have the broad range of skills required to install and service these next-generation systems, so the work will probably be accomplished by corporate mergers between the traditional electrical contractors, audio contractors, telephony contractors, and computer companies. Once we think of systems from a structured cabling perspective, application becomes just a matter of how the black boxes will be programmed. No longer is a box a telephone, or a computer, or an audio system. The boxes are whatever we program them to be. An example of a business trying to come to grips with these new technologies is the East Coast Music Mall in Danbury, Conn. Traditionally, the company's core business was selling guitars to local musicians. Over the past five years, East Coast's Web site has expanded its customer base. To field numerous inquiries on the Web, the company installed a fractional T1 line and a dedicated server. This provides full-time access to the Internet and the ability for large numbers of users to reach their site at high speeds. The computer system at East Coast was intended to support Internet sales, but quickly it became apparent that customers wanted more than just information. Traditionally, and to some extent still, the company sold mixing boards, audio processing hardware, and professional audio cabling. New, Internet-savvy customers, however, were accustomed to working on their computers, and began asking for the new generation software-based audio programs. These computer-based programs replace racks of expensive hardware, and allow musicians to transfer files completely within the digital domain. The transition to selling new computer-based programs meant that East Coast's had to train its customers. Enter a new computer training division designed to teach customers how to use the products. This created a profit center that traditionally did not exist. These same opportunities are going to increasingly arise for the new generation information contractors. Profit will come not only from selling the proprietary system, but also from training customers' staff to run the computerized systems that will operate those systems. Tomorrow's customers will be more computer-literate and will control more of the information within their businesses through these systems. For those who can teach them how to accomplish these goals, there will be significant profits to be earned. Compatible systems Not all computers are exactly the same. Software designers try to purchase large numbers of new computers, and then test their software on each to try and make them compatible with the subtle variations between brands. The process, however, is imperfect and some programs just do not run well on some computers. East Coast employees initially spent countless hours doing customer support, trying to get customers' computers to run the software they had sold to them. So, the company changed its approach. It had a proprietary computer line built to East Coast's specifications, and tested to assure compatibility with the program the company sells. The processors are electronically frozen to a constant minus 40 degrees Celsius, and by cooling the chips to remove heat generated from processing, the chips can be run "overclocked" at speeds in excess of 1 Gigahertz, or about twice as fast as a non-cooled computer. In order to get the audio in and out of the computers, powerful sound cards are used from companies such as Guillemot. These sound cards were developed for the computer game industry, but will increasingly be used in commercial computer systems to provide 24-bit audio with its high signal-to-noise ratio for clean quiet audio processing. The implications for commercial sound An amazing phenomenon is occurring because many churches have Web sites. Congregations in South Dakota are talking with members of congregations thousands of miles away. Today, a member of the congregation takes a digital picture of a service, and posts it as an e-mail attachment. Currently, we can post low-quality video to the Internet, but the coming revolution in bandwidth will enable Internet users to send high-resolution, real-time video anywhere in the world. Three-dimensional laser holography continues to grow at tremendous rates, and the image the congregation sees from the video feed may be almost indistinguishable from a person who was present. And, while this may sound very futuristic, all of this can be accomplished now. In the near future, it will be commonplace. The growth of Ethernet for audio Most sound systems operate in the analog domain. In simplified terms, analog means the frequency of the sound waves is converted to a tiny AC voltage with the same frequency. The audio remains in this analogous electrical state until it is amplified and sent to a loudspeaker for conversion back to acoustical (sound) energy. Since the late 1800s, the theory of analog sound has changed little. An early phonograph and a state-of-the-art microphone accomplish approximately the same function. By contrast, the new technology systems are based upon converting the analog information to a digital data stream, where everything is a series of "zeros" or "ones." Once the data is in a digital stream, it can then be processed and distributed via computer systems at high speeds and on inexpensive cabling. The technology to achieve the transfer of the digital data is available today. The most common method is to use an Ethernet, or Fast Ethernet network. There are currently tens of millions of these networks in place and commercial users are comfortable with Ethernet-based systems. The advantages of digital networked audio are significant. Noise problems caused by electrical voltage inductively carried into analog cables are reduced in digital cables, as all data below a specific level are simply ignored. And digital cabling can cost dramatically less than a comparable analog-wired system. An example would be a large sound system, which had 64 microphones spread out over a series of rooms. An analog system would require a shielded two-conductor STP cable for every microphone. The conduit to route it back to the mixing board would need to be 3 inches. By contrast, all 64 channels of digital audio could travel on a single Cat 5 UTP wire in a half-inch conduit. In a convention-size building, the difference in cost would be hundreds of thousands of dollars. A note of caution, however, is that these Cat 5-based cabling systems are typically limited to 300 feet of run for audio. Beyond that distance, the system should be supplemented by fiber. Due to timing problems associated with the transfer of audio in Ethernet, the system will, however, require a special box to convert the data to a format such as Cobranet. The next generations are available now Integration of digital systems allows very complex tasks to be handled by very simple instructions. Accordingly, the operator would simply press an icon, which might set the system for Sunday morning church service. The controllers then send the command to a second tier of powerful devices that operate the various systems within the building. A single touch on the panel would turn on the appropriate lights, set the temperature, open the door locks for the front of the building, and advise the audio system to turn on and prepare for the Sunday service settings. While analog systems require days of rewiring, the digital system is carried in by one person, connected to a half dozen cables, and turned on. A programmer then remotely dials up the system, and specifies its function settings. The role of the information contractor In today's analog systems, when the sound or any other system does not work as expected, people have grown accustomed to the unpleasant wait for someone to fix it. In tomorrow's systems they will call your office, and from your computer you will simply connect to the system, run diagnostics and, in most cases, make the repair without ever visiting the facility. A business might first purchase the hardware and just enough programming to provide required functions. A few months later, when they want to add more features, you can download them to their system. The profit from the system continues to flow over a series of years, and all without a visit to the site or anyone moving a single cable. U.S. contracting companies could handle the programming for systems worldwide. You would hire a local contractor to put in the box according to a structured cabling plan you developed. Then, from your laptop on your boat, you will implement the system on an island halfway around the world. This all sounds a little scary, but for the users of these systems, the reality will be remarkable. Where to start The fact that you have read this far means you have already started to think like an information contractor. Contractors involved in Cat 5 wiring should be familiarizing themselves with how networked audio technology will work. An excellent place to start is on the Peak Audio Web site at www.peakaudio.com/forward/cobranet. The next step is to start thinking about whom within your company will be able to handle the programming tasks. If no one is really qualified, start thinking about whether a strategic joint venture with another company in your area might make sense. This can be a simple deal to share work, but smart companies will start making these contacts and nailing down these relationships now. In most cases, the best source for information on new technology is its manufacturer. When you find a new product that might be interesting in the future, identify the local representative, and invite him or her over to talk about the technology. The digital age, for those of us who choose to participate in it, is going to be lucrative. Personally, I want to hear those choirs with the voices of friends I might otherwise have never met. It won't be easy, but it will be good. MILLER is a sound systems expert at Goldline in Danbury, Conn. He may be reached at (203) 938-2588.