Web pet peeves, plenum breakdown, and the second telecom boom

April 1, 2004
As a designer, my customers expect 24/7 support from me.

"Internet commerce is merely the direct-sales model on steroids with customers and suppliers enjoying an electronic connection, any time, any place."
—Michael Dell, Dell Computer

As a designer, my customers expect 24/7 support from me. It doesn't mean that I am targeting those sleepless in Seattle, but rather that I welcome business from Austin to Boston, and Berlin to Bangkok.

I spend very little of my time in a traditional brick-and-mortar office. Any time my laptop and cell phone are within my reach, I am "in" my office—airports, coffee shops, hotel conference or sleeping rooms, etc. In turn, I expect the same 24/7 support from my suppliers.

Access to product manufacturers' information via Web pages is critical.

Of late, I have found many manufacturers touting new products or a solution to a problem, but "It hasn't been updated on the Web site yet." Why does this happen? Put your latest and greatest product news on the Web ASAP, so those of us who are balancing our laptops on our knees while huddled around a power outlet in the back of a meeting room somewhere can get to it when we need it.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, what I need is information about products that is usually printed in the catalog or in spec sheets. But I cannot transport a footlocker of catalogs and spec sheets during my travels. I could telephone the account rep, who is just as busy as I am, and leave a voicemail so they can return my call when it is convenient for them. Or, I could "press zero to speak to the receptionist," who can ask me silly questions like, "Would you like me to send you our new catalog when it is published?" No thanks; I need the information by 3 p.m. today.

Do not make your site hard to find. Anyone in the country, or the world, can reach you if they know you are there. But if they do not see you, they cannot reach you. You may as well not be there. If a user cannot go to www.google.com or www.yahoo.com, type your company name, and get your home page in the first 20 hits, then you need to fix the problem.

You wouldn't want to buy an invisible widget, and neither do we. Provide the option to see the product, even if it is as simple as a bolt and nut. While a picture is worth a thousand words, it may also save a hundred telephone calls.

But don't try to force your customers to download special software or complete lengthy registration forms just to see your product. You will fail. Remember, we can find exactly the same kind of product on another site just a click away.

Whether you like it or not, you and your competitors all sit at everyone's fingertips on the same connection. Make your site the one easiest for us to "reach out and touch," and we will.

Plenum then, plenum now?

Q: We are trying to find out if the Cat 5 plenum-rated cable that was installed back in the late '80s would still be plenum-rated today. This isn't abandoned cable; in fact, it's still in use today. We currently have some original cable that we installed and the questions came up: "Would the materials used in the plenum cable break down? If the materials that make the plenum cable 'plenum rated' would break down, what would happen during a fire? Also, what would happen to the cable as far as running our 10/100 Ethernet network as the cable ages? Should we expect to start seeing network problems down the road?"
Bob Carol
Lawson Electric
Chattanooga, TN

A: Is the cable still CMP? You bet. It says so right there on the jacket. There is no requirement in NEC, or anywhere else that I am aware of, to pull out one of those cables every now and then and send it to a testing lab to be incinerated in a Steiner Tunnel Test to see if things have changed since the cable was installed.

Is the cable exactly the same today as when it was installed? Probably not. In its pure form, polyvinyl chloride is rigid and brittle. Cable manufacturers add plasticizers to make the PVC flexible. Phthalates (pronounced THAL-aytes), which look like vegetable oil, are most often used in flexible PVC. Because the phthalates are not chemically bonded to the PVC, they tend to outgas over time, so to extend the life of the flexible PVC, stabilizers are also added. But PVC will produce a dense black smoke when burned; hence, PVDF was used as a cable jacket material in the late '80s. Some early CMP cable jackets were basically PVC with clay added—yes, they actually added very refined dirt. The ratio of PVC to dirt was such that the material would pass a Steiner Tunnel Test—enough dirt to pass the burn test with enough PVC to hold the dirt together.

If you are trying to sell your previous clients on recabling today, you are going to have to focus on the cable's transmission performance, not the CMP rating. Network problems down the road depend on the application. If the 10Base-T and 100Base-T are working fine today, they will very likely continue to do so. But if your client plans to move to 1000Base-T, you will have to retest the installed base to see if it can support it.

1000Base-T uses all four pairs for bidirectional transmission, which requires measuring additional parameters—return loss and equal-level far-end crosstalk (ELFEXT). These tests would be performed with a Level III cable tester.

Should a link fail, there are five corrective actions that may solve the problem without recabling:

  • Change patch cord with a Cat 5e cord;
  • Change crossconnect to an interconnect;
  • Change consolidation point with a Cat 5e consolidation point;
  • Change work area connector to a Category 5e connector;
  • Change interconnect to a Category 5e interconnect.

For beyond 1000Base-T (like 10Gig), you will definitely need to install new cabling. But the "jury is still out" on exactly what that replacement cable should be.

Point to ponder

Back in the late '80s and early '90s, we started installing categories of structured cabling. Once we had cabled the existing buildings to meet their current applications, we were all competing for the new construction and renovation projects.

With the downturn in the economy, both new construction and renovation slowed. There was a lot of manufacturers' inventory sitting in warehouses and a lot of designers and installers looking for new challenging careers. Now, new construction and remodeling are picking up. But it is not going to be the cabling heyday that we saw in the '90s.

We are already in a second telecommunications boom, only this one is wireless. With wireless access from the boardroom to the bathrooms being the norm, fewer but very-high-performance cables will be needed in the work area.

Soon, you will either know how to design wireless systems or find yourself asking, "Will that be smoking or non?"

Click here to enlarge image

Donna Ballast is BICSI's standards representative, and a BICSI registered communications distribution designer (RCDD). Send your questions to Donna via e-mail: [email protected].

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