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The September 13, 2005 Issue Provided by System Dynamics Inc.
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Preparing Our Condo for the Digital Future

In Planning Our "Broadband Condo" (BBHR 5/23/2005) we wrote about our purchase of a Florida vacation condo earlier this year. That article described our first project: installing a broadband connection and a PC to meet both our needs and those of our rental guests, and trying to get a VPN link working between the condo and our house.

Computer boxes piled on the bed during construction --> Click for larger pictureNow we're into the second phase of our project. We've started a complete renovation of our condo, and we're rewiring and equipping the condo for digital media. Since so much of the technology and applications has changed since we wired our New Jersey house nearly ten years ago, this project gives us a "second chance" to improve on some of the ways we did things back then.

Digital media—much of it delivered over broadband to and in the home—is the wave of the future. At home, we're already using networked digital audio and video. We started testing digital telephone services three years ago. Lots of people have subscribed to Vonage and other digital phone services; digital telephones and video telephony are coming soon. In our new condo, we want to start installing digital media now and be prepared for what will come in the future.

Open walls in our condo --> Click for larger pictureOur priority in this phase of our project is to make sure we've thoroughly thought out what will be go in the walls, since once they are up, you can't (easily) go back. As a result, our emphasis is on making sure we provide the wiring that will be good for now and into the future. What's outside the walls—the electronics—should serve us for at least a few years, but we know they will change over time.

We want the wiring and the electronics we choose to support a variety of media and communications services: data, video, audio and telephone. Data is comparatively easy; planning for all other forms of media and communications is harder. While there's little doubt that video, audio and telephone services will be mostly digital in the future, they're mostly analog today. The cabling required to interconnect all these is still being sorted out.

We started planning the new wiring as part of our remodeling plan. We first considered the user needs: what we want to provide for guests staying in our condo, and what in addition we want for ourselves. We expect to address some of these needs now, and more as new technologies become available.

Then we examined the key technologies, including structured cabling, multi-room audio, digital television and more.

We'll keep you posted on our progress in the Our Broadband Condo section of our website.

Planning for Today and Tomorrow

Since pulling wires through existing walls is expensive, we'd like to do it once and not have to think about it again for a long time to come.

Our plan for the kitchen outlets --> Click for larger pictureMuch of our planning has been in the wiring and outlets, including spare cables for future needs. The state of digital video interfaces is very confusing, and the standards for interoperability of digital media devices are still in process. To hedge our bets, we decided to provide "cable chases" between rooms where we suspect we might need new cables once the standards settle down.

Russound A-KP2 A-BUS keypad module --> Click for larger pictureWe found wiring for multi-room audio particularly interesting. We eventually settled on A-BUS as a good compromise; although it uses analog rather than digital audio, it uses Category 5 cable to carry the audio, infrared for remote controls and power to integrated amplifier modules in each room. We think the wiring will work for A-BUS now, and for digital multi-room audio in the future.

Flexibility vs. Ease of Use: The Designer's Dilemma

Because we rent our condo to guests when we're not using it ourselves, we faced several ease of use issues. We know from our home experience that many emerging products and services are confusing (to say the least). We don't want our guests calling for help every time they use the PC, TV, sound system and telephones. So we have the added challenge of making anything we install in our condo suitable for the guests who rent it much of the time.

Although digital telephones are starting to appear on the market, we think most of our guests would find them unfamiliar and difficult to use. Although we will probably subscribe to a digital telephone service, for now we'll stick with analog telephones that everyone knows how to use.

For similar reasons, we're electing to use A-BUS for mulli-room audio, rather than one of the emerging digital audio systems. We'll select A-BUS components that make it obvious how to use the volume controls and remote controls.

We've been surprised by the amount of time and research it has taken to get us to this stage. In trying to get answers to "simple" questions, like compatibility between digital video outputs of PCs and the digital video inputs of flat-panel screens, we've found there are many potential booby traps lurking. Hopefully, we'll uncover most of them before the walls are closed and the electronics are purchased!