Networking


The next few years (much like the last few) will bring exciting changes to the way we communicate, both with each other and with electronic systems. Local Area Networks (LANs) and Wide Area Networks (WANs) have changed the way businesses communicate in the past two decades. Residential network systems are coming on line at present, that bring the same, nearly real time communications, to the home.

This introduction of business style networks into the home, however, is just the beginning. The new electronic systems will "talk to" each other, their manufacturers and service centers, as well as their owners. These systems include appliances, home entertainment systems, heating and air conditioning equipment, security systems, lighting systems and practically anything else that uses electronic controls. There is little question that these networks will become a reality, the real question is, what language will these devices speak, and through what medium will the data be sent?

Low speed data (in the Kbps and low Mbps range) can use several methods-

  1. Powerline carrier - The data is sent over existing electrical (120/240 volt) wiring in the home.
  2. Telephone wiring - The data is sent over existing telephone cables
  3. Wireless - The data modulates an RF carrier, a radio system sends and receives the data.

These low speed systems have the advantage of not requiring any new wiring. The main disadvantage is the low data transfer rates. This would not be a problem for some applications (like the refrigerator calling for "its own" service). Other applications (like video streaming) would quickly bog down.

High speed data (in the high Mbps to Gbps range) require much more specialized systems. Here twisted pair data cable or (optical) fiber is required. The disadvantage for existing homes is that the specialized cable or fiber is difficult (spell that expensive) to install. The advantage however, is the ability to transfer huge amounts of data very quickly. Moving high definition video and/or large computer files is a breeze. We recommend that anyone building a new home, where the installation is simple, prewire for high speed data, the cost is very low.

Practical examples of what could be done with these systems -

Using broadband internet service for conventional entertainment such as movies and music. The home network would handle the distribution of streaming audio and/or video data, allowing any location access to the bitstream.
or
Allowing your furnace, after sensing abnormal motor current, to inform you (or a servicer) that a failure is imminent. The motor could then be replaced, before you are left in the cold.
or
Enabling you, with the push of one button to - turn on the TV, DVD player and sound system, select the proper settings on all, and dim the lights to a pre determined level for movie viewing. We can do this now, but it requires very expensive touch pad interface controllers.

The difference between home and business networks, as they are evolving, is that the home systems will not require a personal computer to communicate with another device. A PC (or PCs) would most likely be connected to the system in most cases, but it (they) would not need to be "online" for the other equipment to communicate, in other words the network is "peer to peer".

While this (home) technology is still evolving, we know the basic requirements of high speed data transfer - businesses networks have been evolving for years. The majority of local networks communicate over twisted pair data cable. Category 5E UTP (Unshielded Twisted Pair) cable can support 100+ Mbps, "Fast Ethernet" networks. A system capable of this data rate can simultaneously distribute - High Definition Video, Hi Fi Audio and still have room to spare for other data.

For customers interested in wiring their (or their customers) homes for the latest home networking, and home entertainment systems, we suggest a Category 5E UTP / RG6 Coax prewire, using a star topology. The system can then distribute audio/video, voice and data. Run the cables from any potential user location to a central point (Hub). Keep in mind that outside connections (TV, voice, internet) to the hub will be required.

The time will come, sooner than most people imagine, where a single integrated broadband information system will combine voice, data, audio and video. The lines are somewhat blurred now, with cable (TV) companies, satellite (TV) service providers and telephone companies all providing high speed internet access via cable modems, satellite downlinks and ISDN/DSL connections.

This integration is not unexpected, after all, they all provide different versions of the same thing - information. As more and more of the "information" is converted into "digital form" for transmission and distribution, the methods used for that transmission and distribution become one and the same, with only bandwidth differences separating them. There will be no reason to contract with different companies to provide service when one company can provide them all, hopefully at a lower cost.

The real question now is not if it will happen, but who will provide the service, and through what means. Coaxial cable, twisted pair cable and optical fiber are all used for local systems (networks) in use today. The IEEE 1394 (firewire) standard is being used more and more for digital data with speeds up to 400 Mbps. There are currently a few limitations (like cable length) that will likely be solved shortly. This "fat pipe" will allow communication between local devices "peer to peer" (without a server computer connected), and could be a path to total systems integration.

The question for business or home owners, is how to best use the latest available information and trends, to be sure any project they invest in now, will not become obsolete (or at least, will remain useable) in the coming years. While no one knows all the answers for sure, there are methods that will almost guarantee reasonable levels of compatibility. Probably the best solution is known as a "structured cable system". This is basically a bundle of cables (coax, twisted pair) and often optical fiber, that is pre-wired from a central (hub) location to all possible user locations. This allows broadband information transfer, to and from all locations, regardless of the format that shakes out down the road.

The reasonable cost of the "structured system" is a good investment. The cost of building a new system latter, or living with a system that is not compatible/upgradeable (or just plain slow), will be many times more.