The year of open-office cabling

One of the major problems facing the communications-cabling industry over the last decade has been open-office cabling. If you stop to think about it, the reason it has remained a problem for so long is clear.

May 1st, 1999

Arlyn S. Powell, Jr.

Group Editorial Director

One of the major problems facing the communications-cabling industry over the last decade has been open-office cabling. If you stop to think about it, the reason it has remained a problem for so long is clear.

The core telecommunications-cabling standards developed by the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA--Arlington, VA), TIA/EIA-568A and TIA/EIA-568A in their current versions, are pretty much based on traditional architectural and construction practices that flourished a generation ago. In the 1950s, our parents went to work in drywall offices connected by hallways, and any cabling that connected them--mostly telephone and electrical wiring at that time--ran through enclosed architectural areas such as over-ceiling, underfloor, and behind-wall spaces.

It`s still true in the 1990s that almost all backbone cabling and even much horizontal cabling runs through such architectural pathways and spaces. However, most of us working today either sit in or are located adjacent to large, open workspaces where individual workers are separated by movable partitions and perform their tasks seated at modular desks or tables.

And therein lies the problem: Partitions and furniture are frequently moved and rearranged, demanding a flexible cabling infrastructure. At the same time, the connectivity needs of office workers have grown exponentially and now encompass not only voice and power, but also networked computing, electronic mail, facsimile, in-office printing and copying, and, more and more, video. The cabling infrastructure required to deliver these high-volume, low-error-rate services has become increasingly complicated and delicate.

Put these two trends together, and you have the potential for corporate disaster. The most powerful and sophisticated information network is only as good as its weakest link, and today that weak link may be workstation cabling pulled through decades-old partitions sold when a telephone and perhaps a typewriter were the only devices on a worker`s desk. These partitions often have channels crowded with both electrical and communications cabling and are marked by sharp turns and burred openings. Those pulling the cable into and out of these modular systems are usually network-support employees unaware of maximum pulling tension and minimum bend radius.

The TIA quickly realized the need for additional cabling guidelines for open-office workspaces, and in mid-1996 issued telecommunications systems bulletin TSB-75, Additional Horizontal Cabling Practices for Open Offices. Since then, there has been endless discussion of consolidation points (CPs) and multiuser telecommunications outlet assemblies (MUTOAs), but only modest product innovation that actually addressed the real-life cabling issues facing open-office workers and the network-support people making the frequent moves, adds, and changes characterizing modern office "churn."

All that appears to be changing today. Within the last six months, there have been a number of major product announcements of modular office furniture and partition systems that integrate into them state-of-the-art communications-cabling infrastructure. The manufacturers that have introduced these systems are to be applauded for their foresight, and their products will receive generous coverage in the pages of Cabling Installation & Maintenance over the coming months.

One could only wish, as a worker sitting in her cubicle was heard to exclaim recently, that the average life span of all these installed modular-furniture systems was less than their projected 30 years!

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