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Our Broadband Condo: Media and Communications Technologies
In this phase of our project, we're putting in the wiring for now and the future, and installing the electronics that will serve for at least the next few years. The wiring should support a variety of media and communications services: data, video, audio and telephone.
Data communications is comparatively easy. It's all digital. Category 5e unshielded twisted pair (UTP) is more than adequate to carry any data communications for the foreseeable future. Fast Ethernet is fine for the near term, and the cost of Gigabit Ethernet is dropping fast.
Planning for all other forms of media and communications is harder than for data. There's a seismic shift under way—while there's little doubt that video, audio and telephone services will be digital in the future, they're mostly analog today. All satellite and many cable television services are delivered digitally, but they're mostly viewed on analog screens and interconnected with analog cables. Many people have subscribed to digital telephone services, but they're still mostly talking on analog telephones. Many people have bought digital music players such as the iPod, but the technologies to transport digital audio around the home are still in development. The cabling required to connect these devices together is still being sorted out.
So we're trying to solve two problems: what wiring to put in the walls for today and tomorrow, and what electronics to install for today.
After exploring alternative approaches, our planning is based on these key technologies:
Readers of our newsletter and visitors to this website will know we installed structured cabling in our home in 1996—almost ten years ago. We have never regretted it and wish we had provided outlets in more rooms, included more coaxial cable and wired more rooms for audio.
Pulling wires through existing walls is expensive, so we'd like to do it while many of the condo walls are open and not have to think about it again for a long time to come. If we put the right wiring in the walls, we should be able to replace the electronic devices that connect to the cables with new technologies as they become available.
In our condo, we plan to install Category 5e UTP cables for everything we can anticipate and provide spare UTP cables for future services. We'll install RG6 coaxial cable for today's video services, and expect we'll be able to use UTP or RG6 for tomorrow's digital video services.
In our home, the structured cables are terminated on a combination of telephone punch-down blocks, a Category 5 patch panel, and video splitters—a jury-rigged approach based on the technology available at the time. For the condo, we plan to terminate all the cables in a modern "structured cabling panel" in the utility room. (We'll install a similar panel in our home when we have time.)
Digital High-Definition Television
In the United States, digital television services are available from satellite and cable operators. Digital broadcast television is widely available and will replace analog broadcast before the end of this decade. An increasing number of digital channels are available in high definition television (HDTV).
In our condo, we can subscribe to digital cable and HDTV services, and we want to provide them for our guests.
Flat-panel televisions—mostly plasma and LCD displays—are the best way to view digital television. With prices coming down, we'd like to install flat-panel televisions in the living room and the master bedroom for now, and later in the guest bedroom.
Digital Video Interconnects
The interconnecting cables between the various types of digital video devices are very confusing. We're going to need to interconnect a digital cable box, a home theater receiver, our VAIO computer and several flat-panel screens. We'd like to stay digital—avoid going from digital to analog to digital—if at all possible.
We've learned that the digital video outputs of PCs and the digital video inputs of flat-panel screens are often incompatible, so we're going to have to be careful to find the right match.
The standards for interoperability of digital media devices are still a work in process. DLNA—see Making Things Connect: The Digital Living Network Alliance (BBHR 10/31/2004)—is defining standards, but interoperable products have not yet reached the market, and some key issues are not resolved in the current specs.
It may be prudent to leave room to run whatever additional cables we might need between the various digital video boxes.
Personal Video Recorders
Many people are using TiVo and similar personal video recorders to time shift video. We use our RePlayTV and TiVo all the time at home, and would like to provide similar functionality in our condo for ourselves and our guests. We'd like to be able to record and play back HDTV, and would like to be able to view a program on any TV screen in the condo.
We've decided to use A-BUS to provide multi-room audio and remote controls. We looked at many other multi-room solutions, and none seemed quite right. Scott Kaminsky of Lashen Electronics suggested we take another look at A-BUS.
A-BUS uses standard Category 5 cabling to carry stereo analog audio to an amplifier module in each room. The typical module includes a stereo amplifier, an electronic volume control and an infrared receiver in a unit small enough to mount in a standard electrical box next to the room light switch. Wires run from the amplifier to stereo loudspeakers. The infrared receiver enables a remote control in each room to adjust speaker volume and to select and control remote devices such as a CD player or TV. The Category 5 cabling provides power for the amplifier as well as signaling for the remote control.
Invented by LeisureTech Electronics in Sydney, Australia, A-BUS has become a de facto standard for multi-room audio. Many companies make A-BUS modules and distribution hubs, and several home theatre receivers have A-BUS built-in.
We think this wiring approach—Cat 5 to the room volume control and speaker wire to the speakers—is appropriate for now and the future. A-BUS represents a good place to start, and we're pretty sure that the same wiring will work for tomorrow's digital audio. More than a year ago, we wrote about an all-digital audio system, on the market now, based on the same wiring.
Digital Telephone Services
Digital telephone services (such as Vonage) are catching on fast, and we expect to subscribe to these services both at home and for the condo.
The SIP technology that underlies most of these services is designed to be used with the new digital telephones, like the ones we tested at home more than a year ago. Although some digital telephone services have started to support digital telephones, today most support only analog telephones—through an analog telephone adaptor.
When we subscribe to digital telephone service for the condo, we will probably still use familiar analog telephones. We expect rental guests will find it hard to use digital telephones until they become mainstream.
Our new wiring will make provision for digital telephones—perhaps video telephones—in the future. Cat 5e cabling should be fine for analog phones today and digital phones tomorrow.
Windows Media Center Edition
Our Sony VAIO PC came with Windows Media Center Edition 2005 (MCE), an extension of Windows XP for media. We'd like to be able to use MCE from any TV screen as well as from the PC screen. We'd also like to be able to use the PVR functions in MCE.
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