U of T moves in, rewires

When the University of Toronto (U of T) took over the Colony Hotel to help ease a housing shortage, the school faced a challenge matching old-fashioned communications wiring with state-of-the-art data services.

U of T needed the extra 600-odd rooms that the downtown hotel would provide. This September marked the start of the so-called “double cohort” academic year. With the elimination of the Ontario Academic Course (OAC) level among the province’s high schools, twice as many students were looking for positions at post-secondary institutions. U of T wanted to make sure as many of the newcomers as possible could get housing.

The Colony would hold more than 1,000 students, but its communications infrastructure was as ancient as the building itself, built circa 1960. The twisted copper pairs serving each room worked fine for the telephone, but U of T wanted to offer 10Mbps data service in the suites as well.

“It’s primarily due to a matter of consistency with the other residences,” said Tom Currie, supervisor of network implementation. “All our residences on campus have 100 megabits to the room. We wanted to get as close to that as possible, to make that location attractive to students.”

The school turned to Tut Systems Inc.’s Expresso DSL platform, comprising modems and a chassis holding 10Mbps line cards. It uses telephone wires to transport data at nearly line-rate, said Greg Ioffe, vice-president and general manager of Tut’s private broadband network division in Pleasanton, Calif.

Ioffe said the chassis provides flexibility. Customers can mix and match 1Mbps, 2.3Mbps and 10Mbps line cards in one box, and easily swap service, since all of the line cards have the same pin configuration.

U of T put an Expresso modem in each room, and low-priced switches into double-occupancy rooms to provide connections for two students, Currie said, adding that the solution met the university’s technical requirements.

“The premise of going with DSL was we knew every room had a working phone in it. Therefore, we could go over the existing voice pairs and we were assured we had at least half-decent wiring.”

The school considered other options, including rewiring the Colony with 10 Base-T fibre-optic cables, but “we had neither the time nor the budget to do it,” Currie said. He added that the riser, a vertical conduit that routes wires up through buildings, was such that it would entail putting in a whole new conduit system.

The wires running behind the hotel’s walls had “no jacket whatsoever on them,” Currie said. It would have been a major undertaking to organize the infrastructure and make room for fibre.

Rycom Inc., a communication solutions provider in Mississauga, Ont., helped install the Tut equipment at the Colony. Casey Witkowicz, Rycom’s CEO, said Expresso suits certain applications, notably those with a small budget, big time constraints and existing, if outdated, wires.

“A lot of technology companies go out to the marketplace and try to force a forklift change,” Witkowicz said. “That is very expensive….If you’ve been to some of the older hotels, you know it’s just impossible to make the change.”

According to Amy Cravens, senior analyst at In-Stat/MDR in Scottsdale, Ariz., systems like those from Tut have their limits.

“If you’re going to make the investment and you have the suspicion that you’re going to need higher performance, it would probably be better to initially go with fibre than invest in a Tut-type solution and then have to replace it in a year or two.”

Still, Tut might find a home in some corporations, Cravens said, describing how the vendor has changed its colours to match a chameleon telecom market.

“Initially, Tut really did focus on MTUs (multi-tenant units) and hospitality. They began looking at other opportunities in the past year. Certainly education was one of those initial expansions. Now they’re even looking at corporate campus situations, any type of deployment which is going to be over a wider physical area.”

Cravens said DSL provides greater reach than other data technologies. Currie said the system at U of T could send data up to 1,200 metres.

Asked if the school considered wireless connectivity for the Colony, Currie said it wasn’t an option. The hotel’s walls are simply too thick for wireless connections to pass through. “It would mean almost putting a wireless hub in every room.”

For more information about Tut’s Expresso system, visit the vendor online at www.tutsys.com.