Because standards for telecom technologies are still developing, you may run into product application gaps. And where these gaps exist, problems develop. Here's how to avoid them.

When you're installing electrical power systems, you simply assume the compatibility of the various items you use. This is because the industry became standardized so long ago and remains so today. As such, you normally don't think about such things as a conductor not being compatible with a lighting fixture's wiring leads.

With data communication systems, however, it's another story. Here, compatibility is a significant issue. Remember, standards for these technologies are still developing, frequently resulting in application gaps. And where these gaps exist, problems develop. As a result, responsibility for solving these problems goes everywhere and nowhere. This continues to be the biggest headache for contractors doing business in the datacom arena.

Let's explore some specific problems stemming from this situation, with advice on how to avoid difficulties.

When an engineer specifies all the materials and methods required for an installation (taking responsibility for it), the contractor has few concerns regarding liability. There are, however, relatively few telecom projects handled this way.

The RFP. In most cases, the installing contractor is given a Request For Proposal. (RFP is the commonly-used term.) In the data communications business, an RFP is almost equivalent to bid documents, except not as detailed. When customers desire bids, they will send the contractor an RFP. It gives general details of the project, and requests the contractor furnish a complete design, schedule, and price.

Completing the RFP process is very similar to performing a design/build proposal. So, what's to prevent the customer from taking your design and giving it to your competitors for their pricing? The following tactics can help.

  • Choose your customer carefully. Do you trust him or her to deal with you fairly? And if you don't trust the customer to keep your design confidential, do you really trust him or her to pay you properly?

  • Do not disclose all of your design details. Give the customer only the details necessary for a basic understanding of system performance. Hold back enough that your competitors will not be able to bid against you directly.

  • Have your customer sign documents agreeing not to disclose your design to any other contractor, either directly or through a third party.

If you can't get any assurances your design information will be handled confidentially, don't deal with that customer. Look for business elsewhere.

Filling-In The Blanks. Even though an engineer may be involved with your project, the design may be far from complete. Your engineer may not have sufficient information to give you, leaving you to fill in the blanks. This situation is very common and comes with many hazards.

If one job goes bad (that is, the entire system is installed, but the machines still don't communicate properly), the fingers of blame point everywhere. Frequently, there's no one person who bears responsibility. Yes, the various items are installed correctly and are sufficient to the amount of data traffic required, but they happen to share different communication protocols. Your customer delays payment to you and his or her animosity stirs with yours.

There are several answers to this problem:

  • Inform the owner prior to commencing work that you are not responsible for the entire system working perfectly. Explain what you will or will not take responsibility for. Be specific. Half an hourspent drafting such a letter may save you heartache and money later.

  • Work with engineers and owners you know and trust. Discuss with them the situation, making sure they know the pitfalls that await.

  • Work up a complete design yourself. If you're sure your design will result in a fully-functioning system, you're in no danger. If your customer makes requests for changes, refuse them on the grounds they will compromise your design. If the customer insists, get a signed document absolving you from any responsibility if the system does not operate as planned.

  • Turn down any job that looks too risky.

One of the more significant problems in wiring computer networks is this: You're hired to install network cabling for Company X, which is upgrading their network from Ethernet (10Base-T) to fast Ethernet (100Base-T). This requires you to remove the old Cat. 3 network cabling and install new Cat. 5 or Cat. 6 cabling. This requires also changing the jacks, punch-down blocks, and other associated items.

The system is being upgraded with new electronic equipment, which is not your responsibility. Company X doesn't want to install the new electronic equipment yet. Instead, it wants to get the new cabling plant in place before the electronic changeover. (To change them both over in the same weekend would be far too difficult.)

You have all of the material delivered to Company X's office. You bring in your workers on a Saturday morning so you can complete the work over a long weekend and not disrupt the company's operations.

You change out all of the wiring and then test it. The wiring passes all tests. Next, you reconnect the existing equipment and bring the entire network back on-line. It works just as before. At this point, your work is done and you're paid.

Three months later, the new electronic equipment shows up and is installed over another long weekend. The system is brought back on-line, and operates well. But a few days into the next week, the network crashes. After a quick round of temper-flares and assigning blame, someone does an extensive analysis and determines there's simply too much cross talk in the cables.

At this point, you're in trouble. In fairness, the manufacturers of Cat. 5, Cat. 6, and Cat.7 cables and testers would strongly argue their systems are properly designed. If a system is certified (that is, tested properly), it should not and will not fail under the heavier traffic. And on paper, the manufacturers are correct.

But remember, these are new technologies, and things don't always go the way they're supposed to. Also, the development of Category-rated testing procedures and standards has usually followed the development of the cabling by a significant time. However, the proof is when this situation occurs more than once or twice.

Here's what you should do.

  • Talk with your customers. A few minutes of dialog beforehand may save a lot of trouble later. Besides, it's your responsibility to help your customer get a properly functioning system.

  • Carefully define your testing procedures and your responsibilities. Rather than taking responsibility for "a fully functioning system," change the wording of your contract so you take responsibility for certain test parameters, not for the entire system.

  • Consider installing optical fiber rather than copper cabling. Yes, it makes the system more expensive, but it also makes it more foolproof. However, this presupposes you and your technicians know how to properly install optical fiber.

Don't be scared away from telecom work. This author is convinced this is some of the best and most profitable work you can get. Telecom does present a tremendous opportunity for us all.

Change does more than create opportunities: It can create difficulties as well. You should assume only the risk you're prepared to assume. Make sure you maintain this position, or you'll probably get "stuck in the middle." Remember, there are gaps in developing technologies. These gaps tend to appear in the final application of the technology; not during design and manufacturing phases. Good luck.