After a number of false promises that started in 1998, convergence may finally be coming to the telecommunications industry. Conversations at the BICSI Spring Conference in Baltimore, May 3 to 6, 2004, indicated that convergence in the areas of technology, cabling, and software will make it possible to transfer more information over the Internet in more efficient ways.

The biggest advance in terms of technology will involve the transmission of voice communications over the Internet, which will enable businesses to reduce or eliminate long distance toll charges. New cabling will make it possible to use a single structured cabling system to support a number of functions in a building. And software simplification will enable system designers to use the Ethernet network protocol to serve numerous devices within a building and beyond.

Let’s look at each one of these topics in a little more detail.

Technology convergence. The eventual blending of voice and data on a single network seems to be a given. However, the technology, called Voice over IP (VoIP), doesn’t yet have the traditional reliability and quality of service found in the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN), in which the voice customer receives a dedicated circuit and the connection is maintained for the entire duration of the call.

In sending a telephone call over the same network that carries data through copper or fiber cabling, the voice stream is divided into packets, sent out to the network, and then reassembled at the receiving end. Running voice communications over the Internet also eliminates the toll charges usually paid to a long distance carrier. Generally, the network has to be IP-based. In addition, 100BaseT Ethernet must be perfected and the problems of voice echo, delay (or latency), and firewall security must be solved.

IP telephony delivers real and measurable benefits. It allows a company to deploy unified messaging as well as advanced, “find-me/follow-me” capabilities, personal calendars, and meeting schedulers. Furthermore, unlike traditional phone systems, an IP-based telephony solution can work with a company’s customer relationship management database, giving employees near-instant access to customer data. Remote office workers and telecommuters especially enjoy a host of communications features to help boost productivity. According to a recent survey by Sage Research, Natick, Mass., half of the respondents noted that they saved almost four hours a week per employee by reducing “telephone tag.”

Amid this surging demand for voice-over IP gear and services, Cisco Systems and IBM recently formed a partnership to boost adoption of VoIP technology. The vendors will jointly develop and sell VoIP products and services, enabling companies to buy a package of Cisco’s IP-telephony software and hardware and IBM’s services and integration capabilities.

However, if IP telephones are to be widely used in business, it will be necessary to supply reliable electric power at each IP telephone in a building so the telecommunications system isn’t lost every time the system is hit by a power outage. Demand is also growing for the delivery of electric power to wireless access points, security cameras, access control equipment, and other devices, all of which can also run on an Ethernet network. How do you support these widely scattered devices in a building with electric power?

The answer can be found in a new IEEE standard known as Power over Ethernet (PoE) [IEEE Std. 802.3af], which describes the use of power sourcing equipment (PSE) and powered devices, and the delivery of power over the unshielded twisted-pair conductors of the network cabling system. PoE provides as much as 12.95W of continuous power at 48V over the same Cat. 5, Cat. 5E, and Cat. 6 horizontal cabling that carries the 10/100/1,000Mb Ethernet service. With a maximum current of 350mA, this limited power is delivered over two conductors of the four pair in the cable, thus eliminating the need for a separate AC outlet to serve each node or device on the network. A typical IP phone or a remote camera generally consumes between 3.5W to 10W of power.

When used in conjunction with a UPS system and integrated with network management tools, critical functions can remain operational if the building electric power system fails. By following the standard, a single UPS installed at the network core can provide backup for many devices attached to the LAN. The IEEE Std. 802.3af also provides guidance on remote access and management via SNMP Web-based control.

An important value of the standard is that PoE is completely compatible with existing Ethernet switches and networked devices. Because the PoE tests whether a networked device is PoE-capable, power is never transmitted unless a powered device is at the other end of the cable. It also continues to monitor the channel in case a new device is inserted into the network.

A number of new rack-mounted products that insert power into the horizontal cabling were displayed at the conference.

Cabling convergence. Today’s buildings are equipped with a number of support systems, such as security, life/safety, radio paging, lighting controls, audio/visual, and automation. This situation creates a burden for the facility owner because he or she has to deal with a proliferation of cable and equipment closets. Generally, each system has its own conduit, cable tray, or cabling system, which connects hardware and software. In addition, these various systems take up valuable space, and they usually don’t communicate with one another.

However, with the availability of open protocols (nonproprietary software) and networking standards, building owners now want to design, build, and maintain their low-voltage services with greater coordination and integration, since low-voltage wiring and electronic gear now make up a larger portion of a building’s total cost. Thus, in June 2000, the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) started updating the 1995 edition of its MasterFormat system for construction specifications. BICSI and other industry organizations proposed splitting off telecommunications, local area networks, security, audio/video, and other types of low-voltage wiring into a new Division 17, thereby removing this work from Division 16.

As it turns out, the new CSI 2004 MasterFormat places most low-voltage services, or specialties, within three new divisions: 27 - Communications (C), 28 - Electronic [Life] Safety and Security (L), and 25 - Integrated Automation and Control (A). These three letters make up the acronym CLA.

In his inaugural speech at the annual business meeting in January, the president of BICSI, Russell Oliver, vice president of operations for CTC Communications, Waltham, Mass., discussed the evolution underway in the telecommunications field. “Our traditional telecommunications base is expanding to become a communications, life safety, and automation industry, including wireless, security, voice, data, audio/visual and automation,” he said.

It’s fairly obvious that the bus over which all the information and communications in an integrated/automated building will travel is going to be—or should be—the building LAN, which can support these other services.

However, the 2004 MasterFormat revision requires a master-planning phase, a design phase, an installation phase, and then commissioning. The obvious question then becomes, Since this is a new paradigm, who will be the integrator of the whole project? The MasterFormat doesn’t assign trade or design jurisdiction to anyone; it simply defines and organizes the work functions.

So how does the old model compare with the new? The old MasterFormat model is code-based with mechanical, electrical and plumbing as the core services in a building. It’s architecturally focused and vendor neutral, with the owner doing a review. The new MasterFormat model, which employs the CLA concept, is standards-based with full owner involvement and vendor influence.

The Baltimore meeting had a success story relating to the CLA model used on a recent building systems integration project. David Brooks, PE, and co-worker Plant Rodgers, RCCD, Affiliated Engineers, Inc., Gainesville, Fla., were able to use a new TIA/EIA standard when renovating three buildings at the University of Cincinnati. Brooks and Rodgers applied the TIA/EIA-862, “Building Automation Cabling Standard for Commercial Buildings,” on the project, which showed how it’s possible to select the voice/data communications cabling as the first system and then incorporate other CLA systems into the telecom cabling distribution system.

The consulting firm provided complete wiring diagrams, including three-dimensional drawings at cabling cross-connect racks, which showed the wiring system in detail. They also provided a demarcation point for the telecom contractor and held meetings on-site to coordinate the rough-in, the cabling, and final phases of the installation. Although the fire/life safety cabling is a separate system, this wiring ran adjacent to the LAN cabling in cable trays and other pathways.

Brooks noted that the BAS industry still uses screw terminals on its equipment, whereas a modular standard connector interface, such as an 8-pin modular jack, would be preferred. In addition, vendors use RS-485 and RS-422 daisy-chained networks.

Within the horizontal cabling run, TIA/EIA-862 introduces two terms not found in TIA/EIA-568: horizontal connection point (HCP) and coverage area cable. The HCP is similar to the consolidation point (CP) used in open office zone cabling noted in TIA/EIA-568-B.1, since both are located somewhere in the horizontal cabling run between the telecom room and the user/device. Coverage area cable is the portion of the horizontal cabling that connects either the BAS outlet or the HCP to the BAS device.

Software convergence, or simplification. Traditionally regarded as a LAN transport technology, Ethernet has become the most popular and widely used network protocol, because it’s reliable, economical, and scalable. This protocol has developed to encompass 10Gigabit speeds, expanding applications in metropolitan area networks, points of presence, and wide area networks. In building automation, the second tier is now TCP/IP over Ethernet, and it can easily serve wireless communications. For example, 37 manufactures of HVAC, lighting, and fire systems provided a demonstration of a wireless Ethernet backbone at an ASHRAE meeting in 2000.

Technical sessions. In addition to all the conversion discussion, several interesting technical sessions took place, including the following:

Mark Harger, Harger Lightning & Grounding, Grayslake, Ill., spelled out the components of a high-frequency ground system, identifying the components and thus providing a better understanding of the need for such a system in a data center. He explained the installation of a signal reference grid, low-impedance bonding straps, and bare copper bonding conductors beneath the floor in a typical data center.

Mike Tobias, Unique Fire Stop Products, Robertsdale, Ala., underscored the idea that firestopping requirements are code-driven and that installing contractors should become fluent in UL nomenclature and know how to select the best system for an application. He recommended calling on manufacturers for help in product selection and using the Internet to gain more knowledge.

Richard Roux, Info Systems, Inc., Wilmington, Del., explained the three voice quality issues: jitter, clipping, and echo on a voice-over-IP circuit. An echo is often present on voice networks but isn’tt always perceived by the human ear. However, it becomes a problem when the delay is more than 25 milliseconds. Solutions to this problem include the use of echo cancellation equipment and configuring the router to prioritize voice traffic.

Brian Mordick, Hoffman Enclosures, Anoka, Minn., offered insight into the need to reduce electromagnetic interference (EMI) radiation in telecom systems, and specifically discussed the construction of enclosures and cabinets. New computers are operating at 5 GHz to 8 GHz, resulting in the increased need for shielding to thwart possible interception of sensitive data by terrorists. Cabinets should have continuous conductivity between the door and body perimeter. Spring steel fingers, conductive mesh, and conductive gasketing are three methods for achieving shielding of radiated energy in a cabinet.