Patch cords prove to be networks' weakest links

They don't need to be weak links, but the proliferation of low-quality and counterfeit products makes them so.

From the February, 2015 Issue of Cabling Installation & Maintenance Magazine

They don't need to be weak links, but the proliferation of low-quality and counterfeit products makes them so.

By Tom McAllister, comCables

As NASA learned with the O-rings on the doomed final Challenger mission, and New Orleans Superdome officials discovered with a failed relay that caused the Super Bowl blackout, the chain truly is only as strong as its weakest link. In today's networks, substandard patch cords have become that weakest link, wreaking havoc on speed and performance, damaging networks, and ultimately costing many companies many dollars in lost productivity and system damage.

It's easy to amass tens of thousands of dollars in wasted time with a computer system that's not reacting properly--all in the name of saving a buck or two on a patch cord. Substandard products also are damaging cabling systems and electronics, in the form of bad ports causing pins to get bent, and modular plugs out-of-dimension getting stuck in ports.

The occurrence is commonplace in both commercial and personal realms. For example, every day, vast numbers of consumers buy expensive, high-end HDTVs and associated components, then link them together with cheap patch cords that cripple performance--perhaps saving a handful of dollars in the process.

It sounds insane when viewed on that level, doesn't it? Yet, this same mindset pervades commercial network decision-making. Apparently, the threshold for patch-cord acceptance is that it works under the most basic conditions, not that it functions anywhere close to capacity on busy, high-demand networks. The goal should be to work at intended speeds to prevent transmission latency or delays--an increasingly important focus as cloud-based services increase reliance on perfectly performing networks.

Save a buck, support counterfeiters, ruin a network

Why is this happening? Because U.S. consumers, both in personal and commercial environments, have embraced cost-savings obsessively. Unscrupulous manufacturers respond to our quest for ever-cheaper components by insidiously providing ever-lower quality. Instead of disclosing the downside of these cheaper products, they remain silent and simply manufacture them to match the price specs.

Buyers get products that appear to make the grade, until tests reveal flammable bulk cable that uses inferior insulating compounds, does not have correct copper conductors, is smaller-gauge than specified, and is shorter than advertised--for example, as much as 8 percent less bulk cable in a package, so what the consumer believes is 1,000 feet of cable is actually 920 feet.

Counterfeiters don't stop there. Modular plugs contain a cheaper plastic, improper base materials for the pins, and improperly processed plating materials, especially gold. Molds are not in tolerances. Finished assemblies never see an actual performance test. That's how they can make a Category 5e patch cord for 30 cents when a compliant one would cost three times that much. But hey, it works, kind of … right?

When challenged, counterfeiters shrug their shoulders. I witnessed firsthand an exchange between an offshore manufacturer and the company whose branded products that offshore manufacturer actually produced. The offshore manufacturer told its customer that it (the customer) "did not pay for that level of quality." The manufacturer added, "You want product that meets those standards, then you must pay for it."

So, does fault lie with the makers of this third-rate product or with those purchasing it? The answer is, "Yes." That is, both are culpable.

This is not a new problem by any stretch of the imagination. A 2002 study by the International Academy of Science documented problems with Ethernet cable and switches, and concluded that problems cost an average of $25,000 annually, per user, in user-productivity loss, network manager effort, and business downtime. Why would anyone in their right mind have tolerated this insanity, especially when the fix is so easy and cost-effective? Why does anyone still tolerate it?

Though critical, they get no respect

Patch cords are the most misunderstood and abused item in the structured cabling industry. They are the last link between the patch panel and communications port on one end (servers, routers, switches) and on the other end, they are the last link between the communications outlet (jack) and the communications equipment (phone, computer, CCTV camera, printer and other IP-addressable systems).

End users pay $150 to $250 per drop, depending on the category or cable being installed. They will demand that the contractor do a permanent-link test to confirm that the installed cabling system does indeed perform to Category 5e, 6 or 6A standards. They may also demand a manufacturer's 15- to 25-year warranty on the installed cabling system. Then they will buy a patch cord for $1.50 that says "Cat 6" or "Cat 6e" and "UL" on the jacket, and assume all is well. Often, this is not the case--all is not well--as counterfeit use of these designations is rampant.

Failure should not be an option

The Communications Cable and Connectivity Association (CCCA), founded in 2007, is an organization whose mission is researching substandard and fraudulent structured cabling products. A CCCA article from January 2011 notes, "This latest set of tests included 499 samples of Category 6 patch cords--379 made by offshore manufacturers whose names are not generally known in North America and 120 made by well-known manufacturers. A whopping 322 of the 379 offshore cords failed to meet the performance specifications of TIA-568-C.2. CCCA reports that 78 percent of the failing samples failed by a margin of 3 dB or more, and 45 percent of the failing cords were 6 dB or more worse than 568-C.2 performance specs."

A release from CCCA detailing the testing and its findings explains, "Because noise is measured on a logarithmic scale, a 3-dB failure indicates a noise level that is twice as high as the allowable standards and failures of this magnitude could contribute to significant network problems." The other 120 patch cords? They all passed. (Source: www.cccassoc.org)

While a proud member of the CCCA, our own research mirrors these appalling findings. We recently tested the difference between compliant patch cords that were factory-tested to the 568-C.2 standards, and inferior products distributors had in stock. One hundred percent of the subject company's Category 6, and 86 percent of Category 5e patch cords failed, slowing throughput to a crawl. The entire lot of factory tested products passed.

How to fix it

The solution, albeit straightforward, is anything but simple. Given the seeming rampant willingness of contractors and end-users to buy this garbage, industry regulatory bodies need to institute tough new standards and protocols that document quality and prevent counterfeiters from continuing to peddle inferior products. And buyers--from contractors to end users--will have a clear choice when it comes to the quality they are willing, or unwilling, to pay for.

Until that happens, the most definitive way to gauge performance is to do a live network test with both good and bad patch cords, then measure latency and user experience.

In addition, both UL and ETL have approved manufacturer directories on their respective websites. If a manufacturer isn't listed, that manufacturer isn't approved.

Underperforming patch cords are proving ever-more costly as demands for optimum network performance become ever-greater. It's time to educate users on the ROI of using topline products that meet standards 100 percent of the time, instead of staking the network's future on junk.

Tom McAllister is director of structured cabling for comCables (www.comcables.com).

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