- The Washington Times - Friday, March 7, 2003

When a home's information pathways are backing up, it's time to call the digital plumber. The copper wires that once carried only phone calls are more frequently being used to dial up an Internet connection. As technology advances, this old wiring proves its inadequacy over and over again.

Families feel frustrated trying to download dense photos taken on digital cameras sent as e-mail attachments from relatives afar. Still others are attempting to visit wedding or vacation Web sites that just never seem to materialize.

When these families move to newly built homes, they want high-octane wiring.

Most builders are offering new-home buyers at least some kind of bundled high-speed-capacity pre-wiring package called "structured wiring" to conduct high-speed Internet connections and more.

Unlike the cream-colored cables installed along baseboards that provided cable TV alone in the past, this wiring is installed behind walls throughout the house while it's being built.

Structured wiring the industry buzz term describes the bundling of a variety of advanced wires and cables that replace the standard telephone wire used for the past 40 years. The conventional lines don't have nearly enough capacity for today's electronic world. They also are vulnerable to "cross talk," when a signal jumps from one wire to another, causing interruption.

Most structured wiring boils down to a combination of what builders call Category 5 wiring and RG6 coaxial cables. Structured wiring is quickly becoming a new standard, replacing Category 1 phone lines installed in most homes before the 1990s. Category 5 wiring provides about 10 times the capacity of standard phone wire.

The Category 5 wire is for telephone and data, but the RG6 coaxial cable is for video. It connects cameras and television including antenna or satellite.

Builders offer an enhanced version of Category 5 wiring, called Category 5E, which manufacturers say carries even more information. Category 5 allows transmission at 100 megahertz (MHz), 150 MHz and even 350 MHz meaning it moves data at a speed of 100 megabits per second (Mbps), 150 Mbps and even 350 Mbps. The enhanced version also reduces cross talk and tests at speeds up to 350 MHz and 500 MHz.

According to Techtarget.com, a megabit is 1 million binary pulses, the common measurement in data communications for the amount of data transferred in a second between two telecommunications points. The standard T-carrier digital phone line in service since the 1960s is rated at 1.544 Mbps, according to Techtarget.com.

Houses with Category 5/RG6 combined structured wiring can handle digital satellite service, multiple video distribution throughout the house, video conferencing, computer networks, high-speed modems and high-speed Internet access. The wiring also can accommodate multiple phone lines, surveillance cameras, infrared control security systems and WebTV.

American Home Systems, based in Alexandria, offers a variety of bundled technical services to several Northern Virginia builders, among them Van Metre Homes, Richmond American Homes, Toll Bros. and Engle Homes.

Paul Jablonski, American Home Systems' managing director, says the company installed structured wiring and bundled add-ons in about 1,000 homes last year and forecasts a company record 1,800 homes for this year.

"The buyer needs to be aware that different manufacturers give different names to different wires," Mr. Jablonski says, "but what's most important is what megabit capacity the wire is rated at, not what the manufacturer calls it."

Mr. Jablonski sees access to the information superhighway as key. "If your 'access ramp' is poorly constructed or does not exist at all, it is much harder, or even impossible, to get on the highway," he says.

The enclosed wiring cabinets he provides accept an array of snap-in modules that support telephone lines, data lines, local area computer networks (LANs), and audio-video services of all types, such as cable TV and security cameras. The cabinet operates almost like an old-fashioned telephone switchboard, but the modules allow the homeowner to route any incoming signal to any other line or room on the system.

In general, simpler structured wiring packages might, for example, offer the pre-wiring for just two rooms as bundled Category 5 and RG6 cables. Premium packages tend more to outfit every room in the home.

Multiple cable and telephone jacks on wall plates in each room are a hallmark of structured wiring. With some builder packages, multijack outlets that can take either a phone or a computer network are installed in every room.

For example, some outlets might have two jacks and two cable hookups, one to receive a signal and one to send. Such setups are necessary to run WebTV and high-definition television (HDTV). At American Home Systems, such a plate is called a multimedia outlet location. In addition to multijacks, the plate also includes an opening for the RG6 cabling.

For new-home buyers, planning begins when the builder offers an opportunity to sit down with custom-wiring and installation representatives. Builders work with a variety of professionals to offer these dual services.

"We have an American Home Systems catalog that we provide and work with while sitting down with new-home buyers to offer a variety of options," Mr. Jablonski says.

Vintage Security, which has offices in Columbia, Md., and Herndon, provides a variety of services to several builders in the Washington area.

A Vintage representative sits down with the home buyer to custom-plan features such as security systems, structured cable wiring and the infrastructure for audio and home theater systems.

"Vintage Security is a preferred dealer for General Electric Smart products," says Rick Brokaw, general manager of the company. "We provide a connection center that enables high-speed wiring to be easily installed in the home."

Essentially a centralized networking box, the connection center is analogous to the old circuit panel in the basement. The GE Smart Connection Center, for example, as a structured wiring and connectivity option basically manages and distributes broadband, Internet, telephone, cable TV and ethernet, which Techtarget.com defines as the most widely installed LAN technology.

While the center pumps high-power information throughout the home, it also allows the mounting of other systems, such as home security systems, gateways, audio products and home servers all in one enclosure.

"The center allows a homeowner easy access to make changes and upgrades as their technical needs arise," Mr. Brokaw says. "You can network a house, share the Internet with more than one user at a time, share printers and scanners and install a router in the basement. If the information superhighway gets to your home, you don't want it to stop in the driveway."

One Vintage Security package includes two coaxial cables one for TV outputs and the other for modulated outputs. Think of added products, such as switches, ports and software, that would allow enhancements such as the ability to control lights and other appliances from a computer or, perhaps, from a remote location. The package also includes two Category 5E twisted pairs with "spline," which is used to separate the four pairs from each other and to eliminate cross talk. Based on GE technology, the smart cable has tested to more than 500 MHz.

Vintage provides such services to about 150 houses per month.

Again, regardless of what a cable is called, it should be durable, with adequate "pull-strength." That means it maintains integrity during installation, which installers stress is an art unto itself.

An installer must follow specific standards with structured wiring. For example, use of conventional staple guns can put an electrical field around wires that can slow and cause interference on the circuit. Special nylon staples are used instead.

"Buyers should be cautious in terms of who they choose to do this work," Mr. Jablonski says. "Just because it's cheaper doesn't mean it's better. Once the walls are up, it's hard to get behind them again."

Because Category 5 wires are essentially tightly twisted pairs of wire, "if the installer pulls too hard on the wire, it stretches out, and it's no longer a tightly twisted pair," Mr. Jablonski says. These types of installation problems can lead to maddening compromises or even interruptions in service down the line.

The structured wires are run from a "connection center" usually on the ground floor to every room in a house that is designated for full service.

Some builders offer a variety of packages. For example, one package might offer service to the entire home, while another package offers service to a designated number of rooms in the home. Either way, the structured wiring runs through the home and shows up in rooms as the multijack wall plates, which indicate that multimedia service is available.

Internet service

In most cases, it is up to the home buyer to find an Internet service provider (ISP). In some cases, such as at Dominion Valley in Virginia, built by Toll Bros., the builder's infrastructure extends to serving as the ISP. In those situations, a development's homeowners association manages the service.

One type of high-speed technology, digital subscriber line (DSL), runs on high frequency over existing copper telephone lines, but not on cable, which increasingly is being upgraded to fiber-optic connections.

Most often, high-speed Internet is available through either telephone or cable wires. Homeowners call for service that runs through the phone line or the cable line. Prospective home buyers should themselves verify service availability with a provider, usually a phone company or a local cable company.

For DSL to work, the house must be within a certain proximity of the phone company's central office or wherever the signal is sent after it leaves a home and is switched to the Internet. New-home buyers interested in DSL should check to see if the service is available.

For homeowners who don't opt for structured wiring, some builders are hedging their bets by running tubing or conduits through the home from the attic to the basement, so that when wiring is installed later, it can be fished through more easily.

Still, some builders say the homeowner who opts out will be sorry.

One builder told of a home buyer in a development who saw the package as "just another come-on" but when the owner went to sell the home, it couldn't compete.

"It cost that homeowner a lot more money to have the structured wiring retrofit after the fact than if he'd had it done while the home was being built," Mr. Jablonski says. "Once the house is built, a homeowner will have a lot of patching and repairing to do on the house after the wiring is run and the jacks are put in."

Prices for structured wiring vary depending on the size of the home and a variety of enhancements, such as amplification and modulations. Still, structured wiring packages could run from $600 to $3,000. When the wiring is installed as a pre-purchased option while the home is being built, the costs often are wrapped into the building of the home.

Buyers should consider the differences in add-on options that can work through the wiring infrastructure. Today's high-tech home might include alarm systems with motion sensors, pre-programmed lighting and climate controls or housewide intercom, music and video controls. Some homeowners spring for drapes that open and shut remotely and even rain sensors to assist a programmed lawn-sprinkler system.

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