The 10 biggest cabling stories of 2010

Acquisitions, prices, counterfeits and 10GBase-T are among the stories that meant the most to cabling professionals in 2010.

by Patrick McLaughlin

IMO, of course. With a 9-year-old who hasn't yet asked for a cell phone but who is bound to any day, I'm way behind on my texting lingo. I need to learn what all those acronyms mean so that I can spy on ... I mean ... watch out for the best interests of, my growing-up-faster-than-I'm-ready-for children. For now I only know the very basics like ROFL (rolling on floor laughing), TY (thank you) and IMO (in my opinion). So, IMO, here are the 10 stories, many of them ongoing, that have affected professionals in the cabling industry this year. Many of them are likely to affect the industry into 2011 and beyond as well.

These are ranked, once again IMO. So #1 is the story that I believe has made the biggest impact, and the list goes from there. Please email me to let me know how far off the mark I am, what I missed, how badly I've insulted you by overlooking your important achievements, etc.

1. Cable prices are going up. Copper cable in particular was subject to the triple-whammy of component-price increases: copper, petroleum-based compounds used for some jacketing materials, and fluorinated ethylene propylene (FEP) used as jacketing in plenum-rated cables. Regardless of what else is going on in the industry, a hit in the pocketbook is always significant.

2. Cisco supports 10GBase-T. Cabling vendor Panduit was in on the announcement when Cisco voiced support for 10GBase-T in February, stating it would incorporate 10GBase-T into its Nexus line of switches. While that announcement made some noise in the cabling industry, it has been pretty quiet since. Loud announcement, quiet rollout. Over the past month I've asked as many people as I can think of the same question: Has anyone seen an actual Cisco 10GBase-T switch? Overall the answers have been cryptic, but one thing has affected the (un)availability of 10GBase-T switch gear is the development of IEEE 802.3az Energy Efficient Ethernet. Representatives of the Ethernet Alliance told us about the 802.3az standard, then under development, back in 2009. The IEEE ratified the specifications in October 2010. Word is that the 10GBase-T world, almost as a whole, has been hanging on these 802.3az specs. Someone quipped to me recently that 10GBase-T network interface cards are in their third generation and no one has really bought one yet. That third generation incorporates Energy Efficient Ethernet and beginning in 2011, look for them to begin moving en masse.

3. Cabling standards, in all phases of development. This is an example of a story spanning multiple years. Specs for OM4 fiber were finalized in 2009 but took hold in terms of user specification in 2010. The TIA-1179 standard covering cabling in healthcare facilities was completed this summer and is all the rage in light of the federal HITECH Act (more on that type of thing later). The TIA-942-A standard, updating the original data center cabling specs, has been in development all year and may optimistically be finished in 2011. And the rumor mill is saying that TIA may finally take up a Category 7 specification. I've said many times that standards are the bedrock of our industry from the practical standpoint of system design and installation. You've reinforced that thought with your kind investment of time reading the coverage we provide on cabling standards.

4. Opportunities in wireless. I remember going to cabling industry conferences more than a decade ago and finding a split between professionals who believed wireless networking was a threat and those who believed it was an opportunity. Today, aside from an every-once-in-a-while assertion that one day wires will be gone from corporate LANs altogether, industry practitioners are taking advantage of the opportunity that wireless communication presents. Another expression I have said so many times it nauseates people is, "There's a lot of wiring behind wireless." At least in corporate LANs, that is. This year we have paid quite a bit of attention to distributed antenna systems (DAS) as one of the latest opportunities for cabling professionals that happens to be a wireless medium. Our go-to contributor for information on DAS and many other wireless topics is Scott Thompson of Oberon Wireless. He recently wrote something about how and why the crush of mobile data is an upcoming opportunity in that vein.

5. Acquisitions. Tyco Electronics, soon to be known as TE Connectivity, has completed its acquisition of ADC. I expect that 2011 will tell a lot about how these two companies will integrate and what effect the integration will have on each of their structured cabling customers. Meanwhile, the the market-share leader for structured cabling systems CommScope (which has both the Systimax and Uniprise brands) is moving ahead with its plan to be taken private by Carlyle Group. Also recently, Belden made a handful of buy-and-sell moves. Perhaps most significantly it divested Trapeze Wireless to Juniper Networks. That move was sandwiched between its acquisitions of Thomas & Betts' communications products business and industrial-networking technology provider GarrettCom.

6. 8P8C interface undoes split pair, doubles density. The RJ-Point-Five connector system, developed early in 2010, will have its greatest impact behind the scenes. Developed by Tyco Electronics (I guess I'm just not ready to call them TE Connectivity until it's official), the system doubles the port density of a standard RJ-45 link. It does so by kicking the old 3/6 split pair to the curb and replacing it with a quadrant-style design. How much this ever gets used in the field, by technicians punching down twisted pairs at a workstation, I can't say. But I expect it to change a lot for developers of Ethernet switching and routing products, which will drive change for cabling systems overall. The initial product is rated Category 5e, but I'm expecting a Category 6A version to be finished sometime in 2011. As noted earlier, the implications for 10GBase-T are likely to be significant.

7. Counterfeiting (and counterpunching). This year efforts against those who counterfeit communications cable were as strong as I have seen them. The Communications Cable and Connectivity Association continued its awareness campaign against counterfeiting. But in 2010 Underwriters Laboratories also took steps against counterfeiters who besmirch the UL brand when they place the UL logo on packages of bogus cable. As of October, UL now requires cable manufacturers carrying its mark to use holographic labels to do so. The thinking is, while twisted-pair cable may have become easy enough for some criminals to fake, the holographic labels are significantly more difficult.

8. Stimulus funds. In the realm of local area networks and their associated cabling systems, public schools as well as healthcare organizations have used funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), otherwise known as the Stimulus Act, to fund technology upgrades. We have provided some detail on the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act as a spur for network upgrades in healthcare facilities. Stepping outside the LAN, the $7.2-billion Broadband Stimulus Act has prompted significant outside-plant network development. Our sister publication, Lightwave, has covered Broadband Stimulus Act awards and projects.

9. Tools simplify UTP termination. This story line makes it into my top 10 because of the significant response that certain product introductions received from our audience. No fewer than three versions of a single-squeeze UTP-termination tool were introduced in 2010 - one by comCables, one by ICC and one by Paladin (a brand name that, like Tyco Electronics, will soon be going away). News of these tools' introduction was eagerly consumed whenever it appeared in our weekly newsletter, which indicates to me that this category of products is in the realm of the proverbial better mousetrap.

10. Continuous improvement. Very much like the previous entry in this list, my decision to categorize "continuous improvement" as one of the year's top stories comes from the response we got from you - our audience - to certain information we put in front of you. Specifically, any time an educational resource such as a handbook, guide, white paper or poster was made available, cabling-industry professionals showed interest. These resources covered topics from an individual standard to a library of standards, and installation best practices to safety tips. These learning opportunities were produced by manufacturers, distributors and training organizations serving the cabling industry. The lesson for these organizations is the investment they make in producing such learning tools provides a service to the industry. The lesson for me is to keep finding these resources and making them available to you.

That's the list of the 10 biggest stories in our industry this year, which I compiled from the comfort of my desk where my biggest risk of on-the-job injury is carpal tunnel syndrome. Keeping that in mind, let's hear from you. What had the biggest impact on your professional life this year? Email me.

As always, I appreciate the time you spend on our website, reading our magazine and watching our webcase seminars. TY.

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