PRODUCT UPDATE: 'Designer' outlets climbing aboard Category 6 bandwagon

If the latest types of cabling outlets and surface-mount boxes were a movie title, Beauty and the Beast would be it. As the high-performance connectivity boom continues to make its way into corporate mahogany boardrooms and increasingly into

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Steve Smith

If the latest types of cabling outlets and surface-mount boxes were a movie title, Beauty and the Beast would be it. As the high-performance connectivity boom continues to make its way into corporate mahogany boardrooms and increasingly into the home, once ugly and purely functional cabling boxes now compete for sleekness and color choices that even Martha Stewart would appreciate. And underneath the handsome hood are devices that not only boast of the latest Category 5E cable standard but increasingly are promising compatibility with yet-to-be-ratified Category 6 (see Product Update table, page 78).

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Fiber outlet boxes (above) feature a snap-on cover that can be removed so you can access fiber connections without disturbing faceplate connections. Field-assembled surface-mount boxes (below), such as this 2-port device, include cover, base, bezel, icons, termination caps, cable ties, screws, adhesive tape, and module adapters. Products supplied courtesy of the Siemon Co.
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Among those taking the Category 6 plunge are Archtech Electronics, Black Box Network Services, ITT Industries, Leviton Telcom, NORDX/CDT, Ortronics, Siemon Co., and Suttle. The Siemon Co. (Watertown, CT), like other outlet device manufacturers, is trumpeting beauty with its beast. Its MAX Modular Faceplates, for example, are said to "combine high capacity with aesthetics" designed to be used with Siemon's MAX 5e and 6 modules. Siemon says it provides "performance far exceeding Category 5E and 6 specifications" for all pair combinations up to 250 MHz.

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Other companies are seeking to differentiate their outlets by promoting multivendor interoperability. According to Laurie Nourse, assistant marketing manager at Homaco Inc. (Chicago), its Category 5E patch panels and outlets "can be used with any other compliant components, freeing the user from a one-vendor solution." And although Gruber Industries (Phoenix) recommends using its own proprietary components to ensure optimum performance, CEO Pete Gruber says his company's outlets "accept all industry-standard keystone [modular] jacks and connectors."

Mixing and matching might not be a significant issue up through Category 5E, but industry leaders like Gruber caution that designers and installers need to do their homework before succumbing to the lure of Category 6 promises, especially when mixing and matching.

"We have replayed this scenario many times in the data world: A new technology emerges that promises better speeds from copper, and all the manufacturers begin producing products that may or may not meet whatever the standard evolves into," says Gruber. "Mix-and-match issues are becoming a greater concern as we breathe the last drops of speed/bandwidth capabilities out of copper cabling. I predict this is the last gasp, and fiber will finally take its rightful place in the world of connectivity. Either that or radically different ways of data transfer will emerge."

Some have dubbed Category 6 as a "racetrack" when compared to the "two-lane road" of state-of-the-art Category 5E, and a report from Wavetek Wandel Goltermann (WWG-Research Park, NC) concurs with Gruber and others: "Lack of an industrywide standard for electrically tuning new Category 6 components means there is a definite risk of failure when attempting to mix RJ-45 plugs and jacks from different vendors." The WWG report adds, "This is a big departure from the relatively safe world of generic mix-and-match flexibility that has existed with cabling and connector components up through Category 5."

In addition, the report says, so-called RJ-45 "super plugs" specifically designed for Category 6 connection may result in significantly degraded performance when used in a jack designed for Category 5 cable.

Vendors like the Siemon Co., however, are confident enough in Category 6 that they're putting money on it. Its System 6 cabling solution, for example, is backed by a 20-year warranty on connecting hardware, installation, and applications when installed by a Siemon-certified technician.

Yet, when asked if cable installers and designers would be wise to wait until Category 6 is fully ratified before purchasing components that boast compatibility, Gruber responded, "Absolutely."

"There is no doubt that IT professionals have a dilemma," says Pete Pela, president and CEO of Cablesoft (Tempe, AZ). "Do they invest in leading technology now, as their organizations demand, or wait until all standards are agreed?"

While the Category 6 "should I or shouldn't I?" debate rages, some outlet vendors have chosen to separate their products from the pack by touting safety and reliability. Dynacom Corp. (South San Francisco) boasts that its outlets are "high-impact flame-retardant plastic," while Black Box Network Services (Westbury, NY) offers a lifetime warranty on its devices.

And then there's always color, including just about every neutral shade imaginable. HellermannTyton (Milwaukee, WI), for example, offers outlets that are available in "white, ivory, and office white."

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