Working Remotely And Staying Connected

Clearly, going to the office isn't what it used to be. In fact, it's optional, with the many telecommuting, teleconferencing, and telepresence options available to the modern workforce. The electronic systems integration industry is enabling much of this shift in the way business is conducted, and in turn, this business is reaping the rewards of its offerings.

First on the list of improvements in the integration business is a slight elevation in the construction hierarchy, a shift which will likely be amplified as the MasterFormat 04 takes hold among architects and engineers in coming months. Already, the increasing presence of AV technology in more types of environments has brought more recognition to the "underdog" of the construction world. "While still a challenge, we are seeing more and more understanding of the special needs of audio and video systems and acoustical requirements from the beginning of the design process and at the start of construction," observed Aaron Downey, senior audio consultant with Talaske in Chicago, IL. "Contractors especially, such as electrical, are less resistant to such needs as conduit requirements, special electrical infrastructure considerations, etc. This is most likely due to their continual exposure of the ever-expanding scope and needs of IT systems infrastructure within new construction."

While the job site is changing in myriad ways as more trades work together on an increasingly unified wiring and cable infrastructure, work back at the home offices of consultants and contractors is starting to reflect the "wired" nature of their product. Chris Bianchet, vice president of the systems integration group at AVI's Tampa, FL headquarters, observed that growth in the telepresence market has streamlined his own company's operations. A Telenetics partner, AVI has built two telepresence showrooms in Dallas and Washington, DC, and they've also fashioned a "portable" system that enables demonstrations on the road. Not afraid to practice what it preaches, AVI has already made use of these offerings internally. "I've done a couple of interviews for prospective candidates for our company via the Telenetics system," Bianchet said. "Being able to give them a presentation of our company over PowerPoint on one screen while they are able to see me, life-size and in real time, on an adjacent screen really was a much different experience for them."

Bianchet estimates that he spends 25 percent of his time recruiting staff for AVI's nationwide network of offices, where nearly 800 employees conduct the business of one of the country's largest systems integration firms. With numbers like that, the advantages of remote interviewing are numerous, especially now that the technology is behaving better. "It's difficult to get a sense of what someone is really like when you interview them over the phone," Bianchet said. "You don't have the body language, facial cues, or things of that nature. And doing it over standard videoconferencing always presented a kind of awkwardness, because you're asking questions and they're going down the path, and you want to interrupt, but it's very hard to interrupt because of the latency issues."

Video transmission technology is improving, however, and Cat-5 is still generating quite a bit of excitement on both the installer and end-user sides. "There's been a lot of development and solidification in overall product offerings in regards to transmission mediums for video," observed Paul Hand, product marketing manager for AutoPatch. "Today we're seeing more of a proliferation of products that are allowing specific markets to achieve that transmission with feature sets that are aimed more toward their needs. For example, military applications, where you have security requirements and isolation issues, they're looking for solutions in the fiber transmission area. In residential and commercial applications, you're going to see a real push toward ease of installation and lower-cost installation, with the Cat-5 product transmissions really being a big benefit to them."

But the Cat-5 option is still not as easy as it may seem, Hand cautioned. "Being able to send audio and video or potentially control or any type of signal down something that really isn't designed for that type of signal is a somewhat difficult and challenging task, but a lot of manufacturers out there are finding really creative solutions for getting what can be really high-resolution video signals on a very inexpensive transmission medium."

Of course, plenty of facilities already exist with a Cat-5 infrastructure within their walls. This presents opportunities. "Having point-to-point solutions for Cat-5 could jump up because there are so many buildings that are already fully wired, fully capable, from an IT standpoint, but now we're going to use it for AV," noted Matt Riley, AutoPatch product manager.

Fiber is generating a lot of interest, too, especially with so much dark fiber out there waiting to be used. Still, there is no definitive means for transmitting video. "The funny thing is, no matter how much we talk about Cat-5 and fiber, there's a whole heck of a lot of applications where standard copper cable is still the best way to go," Hand said. "There are costs associated with Cat-5 up front-transmitters and receivers cost money-and there's a break-even point associated with that. That value proposition really needs to be evaluated by the dealer and the end-user to figure out the best solution."

Just the same, the Cat-5 trend is making waves. "It's hard to find an AV installation right now that doesn't incorporate some form of sending video or computer signals over Cat-5e," said Jake Rivera, president of Design and Integration in Baltimore, MD. "Right now the ability to send video over Cat-5 is popular because it's inexpensive and you can send it a long way. Whether the trend is here to say, I really can't say. But it seems like the whole industry moved on it and is utilizing it."

In spite of its immense popularity, Cat-5 isn't just another pretty face. "A lot of times what the consultant envisions as a conduit path as the crow flies isn't that way at all in the field," he commented. "You then have to go the long way to get from point A to point B through C and D, and when you do that you add all this additional length to your cable run and thereby take it out of its performance spec. Going to video over Cat-5e solves the problem."