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Government does (class) FA

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Over the past five years, the Northern Territory Government has completed several Category 7A (class FA) installations using the Siemon fully-shielded TERA system. Some of those sites include a new multi-storey building and the recabling of Parliament House. Cabling Connection speaks with project manager Rob Miller to find out what led him to investigate and ultimately deploy the first multi-level Category 7A (class FA) cabling solution all those years ago.

Q. Tell us, Rob, how did this all come about? What caused you to completely recable a five-storey building that had a functioning Category 5 network in place?

A. Our properties department was preparing to renegotiate the lease on the building. There was discussion that the lease would be negotiated for a 10-year period with an option to extend. As a sweetener, the building owner offered to renovate the interior décor of the building to make it more compatible with modern work practices. Included in the proposed renovations were the replacement of the ceiling tiles and installation of energy efficient lighting. Having the entire ceiling space opened up offered us the perfect opportunity to evaluate the capabilities of our data and phone network.

Although sufficient for our current requirements, we determined that our existing Category 5 network would be showing its age pretty quickly as new technology emerged, and the business units housed in that building were starting to use new technologies to work smarter and more efficiently. With the 10-year lease in mind, we considered the opportunity to future proof the network and decided to do some updating of our own.

Q. Did the decision to go with a Category 7A solution fall right into place?

A. No. At that stage in the planning process, I knew very little about Category 7A, and judging from what I had heard, I would be a fool to even consider it. The first choice was Category 6A (class E A).

Q. What had you heard about Category 7A to make it initially seem so unappealing?

A. Initially it was the expense. I was told that it was expensive to purchase and that installation was complex and difficult. Then there were rumours regarding Category 7A crosstalk concerns at another project site. I was also concerned that nobody made switches that had a Category 7A interface and that I would have to change all the network interface cards (NICs) at the desktops because the Category 7A patch leads wouldn’t fit. I believed this was a reference to TERA connectors and that it was assumed that the patch leads had TERA connectors on both ends.

Q. You have TERA installed now. What changed your mind?

A. We did some hands-on cable terminations and went through all the possible permutations available for connecting infrastructures using the TERA connections, including cable sharing, 10/100/1000BASE-T and 10GBASE-T LANs, phones, video, audio and TV via a video balun.

To take a serious look at TERA and Category 7A (class FA) as a viable solution for my site, I then set my mind to investigating the stories (or myths, I should say) associated with Category 7A installations. I also did a cost comparison on cabling the site with a Siemon TERA Category 7A (class FA) solution versus Category 6A (class EA).

Q. What was the result of your investigation?

A. The first thing was to try to find a Category 7A installation site that failed to perform. I couldn’t find a single site with any type of transmission problem.

The issue of the switch, NIC and phone connections not being compatible with TERA turned out to be a nonissue. It was quite obvious that the hybrid patch leads had a TERA connector on one end and either an RJ-45 or R-J11 modular plug on the other. However, I still had a difficult time convincing the architect, who refused to acknowledge they would work. He had been showing the planning group pictures of a TERA-to-TERA patch lead that he had downloaded from the Siemon website. To settle this issue, I brought along samples of TERA components that included a wall plate and hybrid standards-based patch leads with TERA connectors on one end and RJ-45 and RJ-11 modular plugs on the other. End of discussion. There is nothing like hands-on when you are trying to demonstrate new technology.

Siemon was also able to dispel the other technical myths raised by misinformed parties, and they helped considerably with my understanding of the potential of using TERA on a site such as mine. The cost of installation and the long-term cost of ownership were next on my agenda. I first tackled the cost of installation, because if this was too expensive as I was erroneously led to believe, then I would have little hope of getting the budget approved.

The site in question was a head office, housing administration, finance, human resources, public relations and IT business units. We gathered together the floor plans for each level and set about designing the most appropriate cable layout. Due to the nature of the business that would be conducted in the building, it was decided to run a single TERA cable to each desktop, with an additional cable at a strategic point every seven or eight desks. The TERA connections would give the users a 100Mbps network connection and an analogue phone connection, leaving a spare pair for flexibility. We are moving to IT telephony in the future and each desktop would then have two spare pairs available, which in my mind is the same as installing a quad outlet at each desktop. An additional cable was also installed at each print station.

Q. Sounds fairly straight forward. How did it work out cost wise?

A. Surprising! The annualised cost of ownership of the two cable types was fairly similar, so the installed cost was the main focus. Although the TERA cable and patch leads are more expensive than the Category 6A (class EA) components, we actually identified a 30% saving in fit-out costs using TERA simply because only one cable was being run to each desktop instead of the two that would be required with Category 6A. Another benefit immediately recognised was that we would end up with less infrastructure in the ceiling. Initially, I thought we had made an error with the calculations so we did it again, and then again. Each time it came to the same result – less pathway space was required.

Q. Did you have any issues during the installation process?

A. None at all. The winning tender offered the Siemon product. I believe at the time there were at least two contractors in Darwin that were already Siemon Certified Installers, one of which was a party to that tender. The installers were exceptionally good and worked in well with our agency.

We had made arrangements with the building owner to use a vacant floor to relocate staff while their particular floor was stripped and rebuilt. The relocations were done overnight, and the building owner and the installers had free reign over the vacated floor until the job was finished and the staff could move back in. We did this on each of our occupied floors, and although requiring considerable organisation, it worked well.

Q. Well the project has been finished now for some time. What, if any, benefits have you been able to identify?

A. The first immediate benefit was noticed by the users. They mentioned that once they were working with the new network, things just seemed to happen quicker. Coincidentally, and for us very beneficially, a separate IT project commissioned to replace and update the network switches in all Government buildings, including ours, happened just prior to the commencement of the Category 7A installation. I can only assume that a combination of new switches and the new cabling contributed to their perception of a faster network.

Because we installed about half of the cable infrastructure that was used with the previous Category 5 network, our patching requirements were also halved. This rendered a spare cabinet on one of the more densely-populated floors.

The flexibility of patching proved invaluable. Within weeks of finishing the project, the department had a complete reorganisation, which meant shifting people around. During all of this reorganisation, we never had to have the contractors come back to run additional cable. In fact, about 10 months passed before we had to install a new cable to accommodate relocation. That’s an almost unheard of feat in our ever-changing environment!

One very significant benefit was that we achieved a 32% saving against the original estimate using Category 6A. We ultimately ended up with an excellent product, we future proofed the site and we saved a truck load of money doing it.

An additional bonus to the agency was the fact that while the initial installation was a TERA Category 7 (class F) solution, as soon as the higher performing Category 7A (class FA) standard was published, our site was automatically recognised and Siemon upgraded our warranty to a Category 7A (class FA) site with no retesting required. This was a dividend appreciated by pursuing a “best of breed” solution that was not recognised by us at the outset.

Q. So, was it worth the effort?

A. You bet. I would do it again in a heartbeat—even though I must admit I briefly considered just going with the flow. But I could see the benefit of a Category 7A (class FA) solution and was very impressed with the way in which the TERA connectors gave me the ability to use all the pairs in the cable. It was just too good of a technology to let go by.

About Paul Skelton

Paul Skelton

Multiple award seeking journalist and magazine editor Paul Skelton has been involved with the electrical industry for the best part of a decade. Email him at paulskelton@build.com.au.

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