Seminar spotlights concerns of contractors

Contractors` worries include UTP`s longevity, new cabling categories, and hiring qualified installers.

Contractors` worries include UTP`s longevity, new cabling categories, and hiring qualified installers.

Arlyn S. Powell, Jr.

Keynoting the first annual Structured Cabling Marketplace (scm) seminar, held in conjunction with Cabling Installation Expo `98 in Atlanta, GA, in October, was a look at the business concerns of the cabling contractor. Based on interviews conducted by the editorial staff of Cabling Install-ation & Maintenance magazine, the composite portrait of the cabling contractor that emerged revealed that contractors are deeply concerned about the longevity of unshielded twisted-pair (utp) cabling systems in light of the new Category 5E, 6, and 7 performance standards being proposed, and the major business problem of independent contractors is hiring, training, and retaining capable installers.

The interviews also suggested that contractors are knowledgeable and thoughtful about technical issues; they demonstrate a lot of business savvy and good understanding of the marketplace; they support their end-user customers and are strong allies of the manufacturers and distributors whom they represent; and they are confused by the constant buzz of information and marketing hype that currently characterizes the cabling industry.

Asked what their greatest technical concern was, more than half of the contractors interviewed said it was the category system for utp copper cable and components.

The president of a California contracting firm, for instance, noted that active equipment makers were sending a different signal to the market than are the wiring groups. Electronics manufacturers don`t communicate enough with the wiring groups about the specifications of their systems, he claimed. The wiring groups are saying you need higher-performing cable, but the hardware groups are saying, "no, we`re building our technology to run over existing cabling." As a result, contractors get mixed messages from the two groups, and end-users are confused about the direction in which the industry is going.

Performance claims by vendors can also be a problem for contractors. The president of a New England contractor said, "Manufacturers talk about copper premises systems operating at 300 megahertz and above, providing all kinds of capability. This leads users to believe the technology is there, but we all know that things have to be perfect to achieve those performance levels--and some customer sites aren`t perfect." Some vendors fail to caution their customers, he added. "So some end-users now believe all systems are capable of 350 MHz at all times and in all environments. It`s simply not the case."

Other concerns expressed about the categories of utp copper cabling and components are the need for simpler test equipment and testing procedures and also for more uniform and understandable technical information and standards.

If the copper-cabling category system was the main technical issue on the minds of cabling contractors, training was the primary business concern, affecting two-thirds of those interviewed. For example, the regional manager of an Arizona contracting company said: "My biggest concern is getting qualified installers. There don`t seem to be enough of them--certainly not as many as there were a few years ago. Vendors can assist with this by providing usable training. We need more product- specific training."

If there was a single message that came through in the interviews, though, it was this: "Remember that the contractor is the vendor`s customer, too." It is clear from the opinions expressed that many, if not most, cabling contractors respect the vendors with whom they work and think that manufacturers and distributors are doing a pretty good job of serving the cabling marketplace. However, in focusing on networking solutions and end-user concerns, vendors may sometimes be losing sight of the simple truth that they must satisfy two constituencies: end-users who buy their products and systems, and the contractors who design, install, and maintain them.

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