The gospel according to bandwidth

As difficult as it may be to believe today, the Telecommunications Industry Association (tia--Arlington, VA) published its first specifications for different levels of performance in copper cable and components less than a decade ago. The specifications, in the form of telecommunications systems bulletins, established three "categories" of performance, since Anixter Inc. (Skokie, IL) had already appropriated the term "levels" for an earlier version of its Levels Program.

Arlyn S. Powell, Jr.

Group Editor Director

arlynp@pennwell.com

As difficult as it may be to believe today, the Telecommunications Industry Association (tia--Arlington, VA) published its first specifications for different levels of performance in copper cable and components less than a decade ago. The specifications, in the form of telecommunications systems bulletins, established three "categories" of performance, since Anixter Inc. (Skokie, IL) had already appropriated the term "levels" for an earlier version of its Levels Program.

The category system called for cabling contractors and cable-plant managers to learn some electrical engineering, but the electrical properties of copper wire and connectors that they heard about at the time were pretty much in the specifications to deliver one thing--bandwidth. The pinnacle of the initial category system was Category 5, which was guaranteed--with a lot of provisos, it later turned out--to deliver 100 megahertz of bandwidth.

Moving beyond Category 5

Our current situation is a bit more complicated. Anixter, quick to recognize that its customers are interested in moving beyond Category 5 performance, has launched a new Levels Program, and the tia is scrambling to develop sets of performance standards for three new categories: 5E (for enhanced), 6, and 7. This will not come as news to you because you`ve been reading about these events in the pages of Cabling Installation & Maintenance for more than a year.

However, don`t be deceived into thinking that these newly defined performance categories are just about increasing bandwidth, as the earlier category system seemed to be. The new electrical properties we`re having to learn about only partly have to do with increasing bandwidth. Some of them are being introduced because networking protocols require them, regardless of the speeds at which these protocols operate or the bandwidths they require. Gigabit Ethernet, which calls for bidirec-tional transmission over all four pairs of a Category 5 cable, is a case in point.

What does this mean for cable installers and cable-plant managers? The gospel preached by cable and component manufacturers in the past has been that you "futureproof" your network by installing as much bandwidth capacity as you think you will need. That meant that installers and managers had to be able to answer a single question: Does my infrastructure have the bandwidth to support my network? Answering this question called for no more than understanding the category requirements published by the tia.

As I`ve been learning at recent meetings and seminars, however, there`s a new gospel out there, and its message is just as different as the New Testament`s is from the Old Testament`s. "Bandwidth is no longer enough," as one speaker put it succinctly. Now we have to understand the protocols running over our infrastructure to ensure that the network will function. That means adding a whole new level of complexity to what we have to know and understand--for instance, the protocol standards of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (New York City).

This will not be easy. Cable installers have carried a certain blue-collar aura for the last decade, but we in the cabling industry know this is a false image. Cable contractors and cable-plant managers don`t just do manual labor; they must also understand complex electrical and optical concepts, be able to run complicated testing sequences, and knowledgeably troubleshoot the network when things go wrong. Now they are being forced by the marketplace to become systems integrators as well.

Multifaceted business

And as a survey conducted last summer by our magazine suggests, they are moving in precisely that direction. More than twice as many of the cabling contractors surveyed listed either systems integration or design and engineering as their primary business operations compared with cable installation.

Is this, then, the pinnacle that was promised by Category 5? Is the gospel according to protocol, once it supplants the gospel according to bandwidth, the end of the line? I think not. At a recent conference, I heard a speaker proclaim that those designing and installing cabling infrastructure now had to be aware of applications--such as medical imaging, videoconferencing, or electronic funds transfer--to ensure that the network would function properly. So, first bandwidth and now protocol, and look out, applications: Here we come!

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