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Structured Wiring Pipedreams?

Mon, 04/30/2001 - 8:00pm
David Iler, Contributing Editor


Will unrealistic expectations for structured wiring 
prove hollow for cable operators?

Home builders peddling structured wiring packages and home networking dreams are increasingly enticing new home buyers with visions of baby cams, intelligent appliances, remotely controlled security systems and multiple high-speed Internet connections. But amid the cacophony of talking refrigerators and voice-activated lighting schemes, cable operators face steep challenges in bringing together builders, structured wiring vendors and their installation and integration partners to turn these futuristic service offerings into reality.

That's assuming, of course, there's an actual market beyond early adopters and millionaire propeller-heads for many of the smart home services that are being discussed.

Conceptually, structured wiring is a broadband provider's dream. With high-grade CAT 5 or CAT 5E and RG-6 cables running through the home from a central hub, integrated voice, video and data services are manageable from a single location. Wall plates in each room can have a combination of RJ-11, Ethernet or video ports, allowing for multiple services to be accessed easily. For example, phone, fax and data ports could all be made available easily in a home office.

The possibilities are endless–multiple computer access, home networks, multiple TVs in different parts of the home running different pay-per-view programs–and range from the practical to the absurd.

Despite the ridiculous predictions, analysts and vendors alike expect more and more homes to be built with structured wiring. "It's going to be like selling a home without plumbing," says Annemarie Grady, builder marketing manager for Leviton Integrated Networks. Parks Associates forecasts that up to 48 percent of new homes will be pre-wired with structured wiring by the end of 2004. "We are working to make that 100 percent penetration in all our homes this year," says Robb Pigg, vice president of operations for J.F. Shea Co., Shea Homes' parent company, who admits the company may fall short of that goal in some of its markets.

The ghost in the machine

Toonen

Yet while industry forecasts are rosy, the devil is in the details, as Cox Communications' Orange County division is discovering. "(Structured wiring) is top of mind for me and our division here in Orange County," says Kimberly Toonen, vice president of residential property markets for Cox.

That's not necessarily good news. Orange County, she points out, is home to several high-demographic housing developments and "structured wiring is the hot buzzword" within the builder community. "I want plug-and-play" is the mantra, says Toonen, but it's often uttered without a complete understanding of how it can be accomplished, how the service provider fits into the equation, and who's responsible for supporting a structured wired network.

Despite the hype surrounding structured wiring and the applications it's supposed to enable, Toonen says one reason Cox hasn't jumped into the structured wiring party with both feet is because she's not yet convinced there's mass market demand for all the space-age services trumpeted by builders and vendors.

Likewise, Steve Craddock, vice president of new media development for Comcast Cable, says structured wiring "is not that interesting to us. It's not a recurring service; it's not a business that builds shareholder value." Craddock also questions whether the average U.S. homeowner is that interested in structured wiring or the services it's supposed to enable.

"The average American home is not (a high-flying CEO's) home," says Craddock.

Toonen laments the fact that "there aren't very many companies that are one-stop shops" when it comes to shopping for whole-house systems. "It ends up to be very challenging to the consumer." She adds that "the partnership and joint venture aspects of (bringing the various parties together) are very complex."

For a company like Cox to manage and service all the applications enabled by structured wiring, such as home networks and DVD-player sharing, "we would virtually be on-call all the time," says Toonen. "I think we've put the cart before the horse on this one," she says.

Tech nightmares?

Because structured wiring is, for the most part, confined to newly constructed homes, there hasn't yet been a critical mass of residences for cable operators to encounter. However, Alan Babcock, vice president of learning and development for broadband training firm NCTI, notes that cable operators are already dealing with the various permutations of entertainment systems with the advent of digital set-top boxes, IEEE 1396 and Universal Serial Bus (USB)-enabled devices, personal video recorders and DVD players, much less full-blown home networks with multiple applications.

Techs today are dealing with issues such as a subscriber's desire to watch a DVD in a room other than one in which the player sits, and whether an RF modulator is needed for this to happen.

Additionally, Babcock says that after viewing the structured wiring hub panels at a recent conference, he noticed that some were passive devices with RF splitters, and some were modular, with room for home gateway devices. "It's just all over the board. It's very difficult to sort out."

Verizon Connected Solutions' structured wiring hub.

What remains unclear, notes Babcock, is the role of the cable operator in helping to define coaxial cable, fiber and copper interfaces.

Echoing Craddock and Toonen, he says, "to a large extent, it is the builders that are driving this thing." And that's the rub, because builders and manufacturers of structured wiring gear "are not really interested in trying to come up with interoperable standards," says Babcock.

NCTI, says Babcock, is "keeping our ear to the ground" with regard to structured wiring training programs. Information about how the industry is addressing structured wiring was unavailable from the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers and the National Cable Television Association, perhaps because structured wiring has yet to impact the industry in a significant way to date.

But conflicts between cable techs and structured wire systems are beginning to emerge.

Grady acknowledges that Leviton has experienced instances where cable operators "have taken out our products and put in their products," although she couldn't elaborate. She did say that Leviton is "going to be talking to a couple of major cable companies," and perhaps forging relationships.

Closer to the battlefield, Toonen describes structured wiring systems that have reverse filters that Cox has had to remove because they're incompatible with Cox's network. This is indicative of a larger trend: Structured wire manufacturers, says Toonen, often sell their products to a builder, then go on to the next sale without any vested interest in making any of the products compatible with a service provider's network.

Structured wiring installations 
as a percentage of all housing starts.

But she says some of the better structured wiring manufacturers conduct certification programs to teach techs how to work within their service center–for example, how to put on fittings, how to crimp, etc.

Cox has decided to install various vendors' boxes in its training center in southern California and make sure field service representatives have been certified to work on each one, Toonen says. More and more, techs are being trained to recognize these service centers or hubs, and to realize that there are certain ones they can't touch without voiding the homeowner warranty. Other issues surrounding these central units include knowing what to do when a service center is locked in a master bedroom closet and the homeowner doesn't have the key, and how to activate services in those units so that there's the right signal strength at the end points for all the services.

"We're there to get these services activated for that resident, and they won't pay us until we do, so it's in our best interest to help them to resolve any bottlenecks," she says.

Verizon Connected Solutions

An interesting model of a service provider grasping the reins of the structured wiring beast is Verizon Connected Solutions (VCS). Formerly known as Bell Atlantic Communication and Construction Services, which was established in 1995, VCS evolved last year with the merger of GTE and Bell Atlantic. VCS, with an army of 3,000 techs, serves as an integrator and installer of structured wiring systems.

According to Jack Campbell, VCS manager of media relations, VCS integrates all the components of a structured wiring system, including CAT 5 wiring, multimedia taps and hub, to a single platform, which conforms to VCS specifications. While Campbell didn't name names, he said VCS works with several structured wiring vendors to develop its hubs to provide greater functionality to include components such as adjustable attenuators for satellite TV signals.

VCS' hubs are "technology neutral" and can include a DSL router, cable modem or fixed wireless modem. While Campbell says VCS doesn't have relationships with cable companies, the company can make its hub ready to receive cable data service.

On the surface, VCS appears to have consolidated and wrestled under control at least a few pieces of the structured wiring puzzle–manufacturer, integrator and installer.

Structured wiring benefits

The concept of installing a single box in which to place splitters, a cable modem and an Ethernet hub, "actually would help us," says one cable TV executive, speaking on background. He stresses the importance of the home run or "star" configuration that is characteristic of most structured wiring architectures as very advantageous.

He also notes that once installers learn about the dynamics of the boxes, there would be less delay in providing services. A common hold-up in service activation today is the fact that a subscriber wishing to have a high-speed data connection in the spare bedroom for a home office often doesn't have coax running to that room.

At least one structured wiring hub maker has close ties to a well-known cable vendor. Home Director, the spinoff of IBM's home networking unit, has worked closely with investor Motorola Broadband Communications Sector to demonstrate home networking technologies. According to Mark Schmidt, vice president of marketing and sales for Home Director, the company has developed with Motorola home network communications centers or hubs with integrated cable modems, and digital set-top integration is on the way.

This configuration, says Schmidt, will help cable operators deliver IP-based services, including voice, video and data into the home. However, it should be noted that digital whole home video availability is not a service that the cable industry has yet developed to a great degree.

Together with software developed by Home Director, the vision is to allow for digital content management of many devices to take place in a home. The software is designed to work in an Open Services Gateway Initiative (OSGi) framework, as well as supporting Microsoft's "plug-and-play" technology.

Using a Web-enabled device, one could detect all devices hooked up to the network. More sophisticated gateway and software products, including firewall functionality and wireless connectivity, are under development.

With regard to installation of its products, Schmidt says that Home Director is working with a variety of companies from residential security system provider SecurityLink to larger system integrators such as ClearWorks and HomeWorks Automation. Home Director has also brought integration capabilities in-house with the October 2000 acquisition of home net integrator Digital Interiors, which, according to Schmidt, has been working with Time Warner Cable and Cox to address service installations.

Despite those early attempts to build relationships, Schmidt acknowledges that there is still a lot of education and "demystifying" that needs to take place with everyone in the value chain.

Putting the puzzle together

Proving Schmidt's point is David Yates, a Dallas-based custom home builder who says that "90 percent of the time, a home builder doesn't know as much as the buyer" about structured wiring and home networking.

On the other side of the coin, buyers often opt for structured wiring simply because they've heard anecdotally it's something they should have, and because it will be a hedge against obsolescence when they decide to sell in the future, Yates notes.

The results of such lack of understanding could be frightening for cable operators.

"When I look at the calls we get right now, just relative to networking of PCs for our high-speed Cox@Home service, it's mind-boggling," says Toonen. Until some issues are resolved, "we would really be opening Pandora's Box if we got into the whole 'smart home' technology realm."

e-mail: editor@denver.net

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