Multimedia network supports a spiritual mission

From its angular steel steeple to its telecommunications network, the 25,000-member New Birth Missionary Baptist Church (Lithonia, GA) is a dramatic departure from churches of the past. Using technology as a vehicle for its spiritual message, the church exemplifies how high tech can serve a higher purpose.

Dec 1st, 1999
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A "megachurch" uses technology as part of its ministry to improve the lives of its members.

Catherine Varmazis

From its angular steel steeple to its telecommunications network, the 25,000-member New Birth Missionary Baptist Church (Lithonia, GA) is a dramatic departure from churches of the past. Using technology as a vehicle for its spiritual message, the church exemplifies how high tech can serve a higher purpose.

Although common in commercial and manufacturing facilities, local area networks (LANs) are rarely found in churches. When the New Birth Church is completed, however, it will have not only a data-communications and telecommunications network, but also sophisticated audio and video capabilities.

Phase 1 of construction, currently underway on a 240-acre site near Atlanta, includes a 300,000-square-foot sanctuary and a Family Life Center. The sanctuary is designed to accommodate 7000 worshippers at a time, with three consecutive services held each Sunday. Television sets will be located throughout the church so volunteers working in the nursery or classrooms can hear the service. In addition to a 400-seat choir loft, the sanctuary houses classrooms, a nursery, audiovisual and television studios, and administrative offices.

Impressive as is the sheer size of this "megachurch," equally remarkable is its use of technology and education to improve the lives of its members. Jeff Cook and Randy Hendrix, registered communications distribution designers (RCDDs) and partners at Network Technologies Inc. (NTI--Atlanta), are design consultants for the data and voice portions of the church`s LAN. "They use a lot of technology within the church as part of their ministry," explains Cook. "For example, church members learn about technology by operating the cameras that film the services." Shrink-wrapped audio cassettes of the services, prepared by church members in the tape-duplicating center, will be available for sale immediately afterward. In addition, members will be able to acquire or improve their job skills in a 50-seat computer laboratory that will offer software and other specialized training.

End-user input crucial

It`s no accident that the church`s switched Fast Ethernet LAN will rival that of many commercial enterprises. Although cabling infrastructure is sometimes referred to as the "forgotten discipline" because it is often an afterthought rather than part of the original plan, such was not the case with this project. With a clear vision of how they wanted technology to serve their community, church leaders worked with project planners to include the cabling distribution requirements in the plans from the outset.

"We planned up front for every office to have a computer, so cabling distribution and management were important issues," says Ben Darmer, FAIA and architect with Sizemore Floyd Architects (Atlanta), the firm that designed the church complex. "NTI worked directly with the client to determine its telecommunications needs. From a cable-management standpoint, because it has the televisions and recording outreach ministries, voice and data cabling is going everywhere. All those microphones in the choir loft and pulpit area have to be fed back to sound booths, video booths, and a recording studio. There are miles of cable."

Such client involvement in infrastructure planning is becoming more common, according to Cook. "End users are getting more and more savvy, and they understand that investing in a good, solid infrastructure is a wise investment," he says. Many market segments that in the past would have opted for the least-expensive way to network a few computers are now taking a closer look at their telecommunications infrastructure. They are realizing that it is a core part of their business or function and are having these systems professionally designed (see "Users remember the `forgotten discipline,` " above).

In the case of the New Birth Church, Sizemore Floyd laid out the basic plan of the facility at a fairly early stage. Then the architects met with NTI, electrical engineers, and other consultants to work out the details. Darmer recalls, "We asked them questions like, `What is your range of distribution? How far can you reasonably pull a cable? In the case of the electrical cabling, you`ve got voltage drops, so how far can you reasonably run a branch circuit?` Then we went back in and targeted those areas where we felt we needed distribution closets, electrical closets, and telephone closets and incorporated those into the plan. Once we laid out the architectural plan, we went back to the various professions and said, `This is where we think can accommodate your needs. Verify that it works for you.` "

Multimedia infrastructure

NTI coordinated its work with that of numerous other disciplines, including electrical, security, master-antenna-TV, audio, and video technologies. "In designing the cable-management systems and laying out the intermediate crossconnects [ICs], we made sure their infrastructure would mesh with ours," says Cook. To avoid duplication of equipment, all low-voltage cabling is routed to the equipment rooms in the same cable-management systems, but the voice and data cables do not share patch panels or racks with the video and audio cables. From the ICs, the video and audio cables are routed to a video production suite.

The entire cabling system is so large that NTI also had to coordinate its design efforts for the LAN and telephone systems with the heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems engineers. "All the equipment gives off a certain amount of heat so the equipment rooms need to be cooled properly," explains Hendrix. "The telephone switch rooms also had to be cooled properly and have the right amount of power, so we had to do a lot of coordinating with a lot of consultants on the job, who were all under the direction of the architect.

"What`s unique about this church is that the cabling system we designed for them is very similar to what you`d see in a commercial office building," he continues. "Things like a fiber-optic backbone and Category 5E, even for voice drops, and homerun scenarios back to ICs--and ICs that are linked together--that`s something you don`t often see in a church."

The premises backbone will consist of AMP Inc.`s NETCONNECT system with 62.5/125-micron fiber. Category 5E will be used for data and telephone drops in all the offices, conference rooms, and classrooms in the Family Life Center and sanctuary.

The main crossconnect (MC) and five ICs will be located in the sanctuary. The Family Life Center will include one MC and two ICs. For the horizontal runs, NTI specified AMP`s NETCONNECT Category 5E copper structured cabling system, including cable, 110 crossconnect, patch panels, patch cords, jacks, and outlets. All the cable-management equipment, including equipment racks and overhead ladder racks, will come from Chatsworth Products Inc. (Westlake Village, CA).

The central controlling point will be in the main equipment room in the sanctuary building. The information-technology staff will be able to patch and manage the entire network from that room.

Outside plant

When all phases of construction are completed, the complex will include a K-12 school, sports complex, assisted-living community, and an amphitheater. "It`s almost like designing a metropolitan area network," says Cook. "A manhole outside the sanctuary building will give us future splicing capacity and bring all the cabling together through that central location."

Fiber-optic trunk lines will feed the entire campus. The design calls for a campus backbone of 24- to 48-strand, 62.5/125-micron, loose-tube, multimode fiber-optic cable. The telephone system vendor will install separate remote private-branch-exchange (PBX) modules inside every building, and fiber-optic cable will connect those modules to the premises voice and data network. The main PBX, which is designed to handle approximately 1500 telephones, will reside in the sanctuary.

Although construction is far from over at the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, its telecommunications network will rise from a well-planned foundation.

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An architectural rendering of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church shows the 300,000-square-foot sanctuary, currently under construction near Atlanta.

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The Family Life Center, shown during construction, includes four NBA-size basketball courts, a dining hall that seats 500, and a fully staffed kitchen. "In this church community, there are functions happening all the time," says design consultant Randy Hendrix. "It`s occupied full-time; it never stops. It`s like a small town."

Users remember the `forgotten discipline`

End users are unwittingly playing a role in the move to include the telecommunications infrastructure in building plans from the beginning, according to Jeff Cook and Randy Hendrix, registered communications distribution designers (RCDDs) and partners at Network Technologies Inc. (www.NTIconsultants.com--Atlanta). While end users may never have heard of the movement to include Division 17 in the Construction Specifications Institute`s MasterFormat, "we`re finding that more and more end users consider the voice- and data-technology infrastructure just like another utility--like electrical and plumbing," says Cook. "Many companies have information-technology [IT] groups that understand the importance of a cabling system and how much it can hurt their business if it goes down."

IT professionals also know that a poorly designed and installed cabling infrastructure can cause up to 80% of their network problems. "So they are forcing the hand of architectural engineering firms to make sure it`s taken care of up front," adds Hendrix. "We see the consequences of the `forgotten discipline` all the time. Jeff received a job last week where all the blueprints were done. All the design was done, but the entire cabling-infrastructure design had been forgotten. It was never included in the original construction documents."

As technical specifications, standards, and products become more complex, many end users are turning to design consultants for objectivity as well as technical expertise. "We don`t sell products or install them. We have no alliances with manufacturers," says Hendrix. "We strictly represent the client and his best interests. We may choose products from XYZ manufacturer in one case and from ABC manufacturer in another. We choose the manufacturer that`s right for the client`s particular situation."

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Jeff Cook (left) and Randy Hendrix, partners at Network Technologies Inc. (NTI--Atlanta), review architectural drawings for the data-communications and telecommunications network to be installed in the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church (Lithonia, GA).

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