The swinging pendulum

It's December. Time for us know-it-all magazine editors to pretend like we're qualified to predict what's going to happen over the next year. This year, I'll take a variation on that theme.

Dec 1st, 2004

It's December. Time for us know-it-all magazine editors to pretend like we're qualified to predict what's going to happen over the next year. This year, I'll take a variation on that theme. Because I'm much better at reminiscing than I am at planning, I will look back and allow others to tell us all what lies ahead.

The articles authored by Brian Milligan and Betsy Ziobron in this month's issue have brought to mind conversations I have had over the past few years. Brian (see page 22) investigates the trend among some manufacturers away from open-system cabling and toward single-vendor end-to-end systems, while Betsy (see page 32) discusses the potential re-emergence of shielded cabling in the mainstream. The themes that echo throughout both articles remind me of conversations with experts who have seen our industry-and the larger communications industry in general-go through economic and technical cycles.

When Category 6 cable was new to the market, and the TIA standard for it was still quite a distance away, I had the opportunity to interview John Pryma of Genesis Cable Systems (now Honeywell) about Cat 6's development. During our conversation, he gave me a brief history of data-communications cable, implying that Category 6 was approaching "full circle" for such cable.

Pryma pointed out that the first data cable most people remember was IBM Type 1, with large conductors and shielding elements within the cable, primarily to eliminate the effects of pair-to-pair crosstalk. From IBM Type 1, the industry moved to unshielded twisted-pair, with physical characteristics that made it easier by far to install.

And little changed (other than the tightness of the twists) right up to Category 5e. But when Category 6 came along, the copper conductors got a little bigger-23 AWG rather than 24-and the cable had this interesting separator that kept each pair apart from the others to eliminate the effects of pair-to-pair crosstalk.

So, Category 6 was a little bigger than 5e, but still much closer in make-up and size to the ubiquitous UTP than to IBM Type 1. Fair enough, but if you want a twisted-pair cable that will do something Category 5e can't do (i.e., handle 10GBase-T when it arrives just in time for Christmas 2006), you may very well end up using a cable that looks a lot more like the old IBM Type 1, as Betsy Ziobron describes in her article. That would be coming full circle.

But IBM Type 1 wasn't just a cable. It was a system. At the time, proprietary systems were the only option. The development of standards, interoperable components and, consequently, open systems fertilized a market that now features scores of recognized vendors. Yet, as Brian Milligan explains in his article, a combination of technical and market forces may be pushing those open systems to close, and some predict a return to the proprietary cabling systems of years ago.

There are other dynamics not far removed from our field that are analogous to the full-circle journey of twisted-pair data cable. Take, for example, television. Signals used to be sent through the air, and in bad weather, reception was a crapshoot. Then we got cable TV. Reception was great, as long as the cables were installed correctly. Today, satellite providers tout the superiority of their through-the-atmosphere delivery method. But show me a fanatical subscriber to NFL Sunday Ticket, and I'll show you someone who gets nervous when the forecast calls for thunderstorms on a Sunday afternoon.

Also consider the Bell System breakup, mandated by a federal court to end the monopolistic telephone service and regarded by many as the birth of our very industry. Not too many years after the Baby Bells were established as separate operating companies, several mergers brought them close to being a single company again. That scenario never quite came full circle, perhaps because federal agencies were watching closely.

The business world works in cycles, and our industry is no different. I offer this month's column as a "head check" so that we all might take a step back and recognize historical patterns, and perhaps even learn from them.

If the past helps us plan better for the future, terrific. If not, at least we can enjoy the view in the rear view mirror and admire how far the industry has come.

Patrick McLaughlin
Chief Editor
patrick@pennwell.com

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