Convergence presents new cabling quandries

Voice and data convergence is old hat — that’s what cable industry experts say. The telecom industry has been running voice-over-data networks for ages. Many companies are now running voice and data on the same network or operating hybrid systems — putting new voice installations on data networks.

If it’s old hat, why is everybody still talking about it? We are now seeing the beginning of every pipe in the system converging: voice, data, multimedia, video, security, building operations and even electrical. Convergence does not mean that all functions will run over one cable. However, ongoing convergence is having, and will continue to have, an impact on the cable industry.

Convergence is primarily a voice, data and video issue, but the industry is seeing “a huge shift, an exciting evolution to IP-based networks” for lighting, heating and air conditioning and other building environmental controls, master clock control, security monitoring and other systems, says Henry Franc, associate director, cabling solutions, with Bell Canada in Toronto. He cites security video cameras as a prime example.

Analogue security cameras have separate cables for the video signal, tilt and zoom control and power. Multiply that by the number of security cameras in a large enterprise and you have a lot of cable. Set up an IP-enabled security camera and you can have one cable that handles video, tilt/zoom control and power.

“The cost savings are huge and it’s more efficient to run the system on one network,” he says. That doesn’t mean a company should tear out old security systems and install IP-based systems for the sake of doing it. However, if a company is building new digs or renovating old ones, they should think IP for more than voice and data.

Of course, before any enterprise becomes truly converged, operations, security, telecom and other departments have to work with IT. “Everyone has to be in a collaborative spirit. There is no room for turf wars,” says Franc. He believes the IT and telecom tussles that existed when Voice over IP (VoIP) first landed on the market have come to a peaceful conclusion. “Now others must get on board.”

IP is practical and cost-effective, especially when there is a need for centralization, says Roberta J. Fox, president and senior partner of Fox Group Consulting in Markham, Ont. Companies with multiple buildings, even in different cities, can set up building security card swipe access over IP. Administered from a central location, security management can easily see who is coming and going and at what times. The system can be set up so that entries and exits outside normal business hours (or any other timeframe) are flagged for scrutiny to analyze.

“The converged networks demand a better quality of physical [cable] installation,” says Fox. Better quality even includes the crimps. A mediocre crimp might not thwart data transmission but it can play havoc on voice, she says.

In theory, convergence means fewer strands of cables. In fact, most companies still do double runs for voice and data. However, Fox says we are seeing Category 5 and 6 cable used in almost all instances, allowing companies to increase speed and bandwidth and upgrade telecom and data networks without pulling new cable.

Category 3, standard telecom cable, “is a total waste” as it only accommodates voice, says Fox. With Category 5 or 6 cable installed, companies have the capacity to converge other functions over the network.

Convergence has long passed the early adopter stage, agrees Marie Hattar, Nortel Networks director of customer solutions, based in Santa Clara, Calif.. But that does not mean corporations have to toss out the old to bring in the new. Nortel recently helped St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto leverage existing technology to migrate to a converged IP network.

Nortel transformed St. Michael’s communications system into an efficient, flexible, IP-enabled network that helped the hospital handle a substantial increase in users — from 1,300 to 2,700 — when it merged with another hospital in Toronto.

Using a Meridian 1 VoIP solution, Nortel provided St. Michael’s with advanced telephony features such as conferencing, automatic redial and selective call forwarding and networking capabilities, while protecting many existing features, telephones and telecom equipment.

The key to convergence is choice: traditional infrastructure, IP, or migrating to IP where and when it makes business sense, says Hattar. “There are benefits to running hybrid TDM (time division multiplexing) and IP systems.” There is not always a need to “rip and replace.” The old PBX does not have to be tossed out with analogue systems when it makes business sense for a company to take a hybrid approach.

“Nortel is agnostic. Go IP, TDM or hybrid,” Hattar adds. As companies embrace convergence, there will be fewer cables and cable closets, says Tracy Fleming, Avaya convergence specialist based in Markham, Ont. “Convergence does not mean the elimination of any one technology but the ability of multiple technologies to come together over one infrastructure with voice moving to IP,” she says. One Category 5 or 6 cable can handle both voice and data. With voice and data on one cable, the cable will terminate in one cable plant where it can be more easily managed. However, savings derived from fewer cables and closets should not drive the move to IP. Business productivity enhancements should, she says. “Converge where and when it makes sense,” is her mantra. “Why put an analogue fax on IP?” she asks.

Ayava’s switches go both ways, Fleming says. Users can have analogue, digital or both. “Convergence is about choice, using the technology that make the best sense and reduces total cost of ownership.”

“Convergence is a business discussion with technology implications, not the other way around,” she says. Cabling is crucial to any successful convergence project, but saving a few dollars on cabling should not drive convergence.

Lima is a Toronto-based freelance writer specializing in networking and telecommunications.

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