The Network is Not Dead

I am attending a conference this week in California. The organization is BICSI, which is the standards and support organization for the low voltage cabling industry. So what is going to be new in the backbone of your network, you ask? It turns out that plenty is new.

The Convergence Trend

It was interesting that many of the things that visionaries have been talking about for the last 15 years are really coming to pass. At the conference, I attended separate sessions on the use of standard twisted pair cabling in security, building automation and audio-visual (AV) systems. In each of these sessions, the speakers acknowledged that this convergence trend has been talked about for years. It is just recently that these systems have started commonly using the same Ethernet cabling to connect their devices. The result will be a more standardized protocol for these low voltage systems as well.

Of particular interest to me was the use of twisted pair cabling, combined with electronics, to transmit audio-visual signals over longer distances than standard AV cables. Thus, an HDMI connection to a ceiling projector can go longer than the 50-foot of standard HDMI cabling. While not earth-shattering, it solves a practical problem with mounted classroom projectors. When you combine the HDMI cabling to get from the ceiling projector to a wall-mount jack on one side of a white board with a long HDMI patch cable, the distance often exceeds 50 feet.  This configuration will solve that problem. The twisted pair solution would also handle all the signals – HDMI, VGA and computer audio - from a wall plate with one twisted pair cable.

Engineers are also continuing to stretch the limits of copper cabling for networking. Some experts once thought that copper’s capacity would not extend past 1 gigabit speed. However the Category 6A cabling is currently rated for 10 gigabit speed at 300 feet. Now the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) is working on a Category 8 standard (TIA 568-C.2-1) for twisted pair cabling with speeds up to 40 gigabits per second. With a distance limitation of 24 meters for the main segment (30 meters total, including patch cords), this new standard will be designed for the data center, but it represents yet another extension of copper cabling’s capacity.

Cabling for Wireless

Cabling for wireless was discussed prominently at the conference. As the wireless access points push their bandwidth requirements higher, the need for higher connection speed continues to grow. The BICSI standards now suggest two Category 6A cables to each wireless access point location. As wireless capacity extends beyond 1 gigabit and ultimately past 10 gigabits, this configuration will allow the cabling plant to approach its twenty-year warranty.

On the fiber side, standards bodies are working on a standard for 400 gigabit capacity using 16-fiber or 32-fiber connectors. These connectors are being designed to interact with existing 12-fiber connectors.

My conclusion from this conference experience is that innovation in cabling is still going strong. It will support the continued expansion of network capacity in our schools during the coming years and impact such things as one-to-one, bring-your-own-device and increased use of multimedia curriculum.

What do these developments mean for your district or school? How will these updates impact your current plan?

Craig Williams is the director of information services for Illinois School District U-46 in Elgin, Illinois. He and his team are overhauling the district’s infrastructure and seeding technology into classrooms, to ensure the all of the district’s culturally-diverse students have the opportunity to expand their learning and achievement. His previous work with schools, first as a building architect, then as a technology design consultant, provides him with a broad perspective on planning for improved student learning. Williams currently serves on the Board with the Illinois CoSN chapter - Education Technology Council of Illinois.  

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