"STANDARDS - THE INSIDE STORY" is the Data Communications Magazine March Issue Cover Story. It was interesting & close to the whole story. Sorry! Close but No cigar. However, the question is the news. "Do vendors have too much influence on the way industry specs are written and ratified?"
THE ANSWER IS YES & NO! Vendors will always have the dominant influence on the way our industry spec and standards are written. In a system which is driven in an effective self-correcting course by COMPETITION, we have seen our industry do a great job of updating and maintaining standards which have a primary focus on the consumer's interest.
Only recently have we seen a new political animal raise its head and tell the world that it can do our thinking for us. When a vendor developed a standard or a spec, you knew who was driving, and if it did not work, you knew who to send your lawyer after. Now, we have a whole new set of players in the standards game - the unbiased & "totally independent" standards body which will do your thinking for you.
As Paul Harvey is famous for saying, "And now you know the rest of the story." or do you?
- ANSI = American National Standards Institute
- TIA = Telecommunications Industry Association
- EIA = Electronics Industry Association
- BICSI = Building Industry Consulting Services International
- NEMA = National Electrical Manufacturers Association
- NECA = National Electrical Contractors Association
- Underwriters Laboratories
- and many more....
What do they have in common? They are fine Corporations and Organizations which MAY NOT NECESSARILY REPRESENT THE END USER'S INTEREST.
The behind-the-scenes power struggle to control the "unbiased" standards is better than any Tom Clancy novel. If the power brokers can dictate the standards through these associations, they can also insulate themselves from liability. Competitive pressures and liability issues tend to deliver a fairly good checks and balances system to the marketplace. Remove these drivers from the formula and we stand the risk of reduced accountability for the performance and safety in the products we buy.
In addition to diminished accountability for the products, we also acknowledge that this process can create a good old boy system which almost certainly restrains the smaller independent companies from introducing new technologies. Bill Gates should be thankful this system was not around a few years ago or we wouldn't even know what Microsoft is. Competition is good. Do not support any system that inhibits or eliminates competition, or you will find out about the proverbial golden rule.... Those who have the gold, MAKE the rules.
One of the great benefits of a vendor program for standards is quality, driven by competition. Vendors are darn careful about what they put their name on because of reputation and liability issues. However, if a small group of powerhouse vendors can get us to buy into some third-party standards system that they control (and they can hide from liability or criticism), we may lose most of the benefits of free enterprise.
As an example of how the third-party system operates, let's look at BICSI and their standards committee. In September 1995 At the BICSI Standards meeting in Tucson, Arizona, a BICSI member at the meeting suggested the committee send a letter to the top end user communications organizations inviting them to send a representative to sit on the committee. The discussions were all positive and the vote was unanimous to extend the invitation and get the consumer organizations to add their perspective to the standards. The contact names and addresses for these groups were handed over to the committee chairman.
- ICA - International Communications Assn.
- CMA - Communication Managers Assn.
- NASTD - National Association of State Telecommunications Directors
- SETA - SouthEastern Telecommunications Assn.
- TCA - Telecommunications Assn.
We have followed up on this BICSI Standards Committee decision (by unanimous vote) every six months since 1995 to see if any action was taken to involve the end users organizations.
In January 1997, at the BICSI annual conference at DisneyWorld, we followed up again. The appropriate BICSI staffers told us that they knew about the matter and the letter would go out as soon as they could develop the proper wording for the two paragraph epistle. Who is in charge?
An industry observer might get the impression that the meetings and the standards process is being maneuvered so that only "big boys & insiders" with the deep pockets can play the standards game. By the way, guess where the EIA/TIA standards meeting was held in February? Hawaii . . . of course!
To make the big point about standards, let's consider the plenum story. For a brief period, FEP insulating material was in short supply and the situation was aggravated by hoarding of EIA/TIA Category 5 four pair UTP Plenum cable. During that period most cable companies developed alternative hybrid constructions for plenum CAT 5 cable using polyolefin for one or two pairs. These constructions were difficult to manufacture in compliance with the electrical performance standards of EIA/TIA AND the fire safety codes for plenum verified by UL. Since many installers were now equipped with CAT 5 testers to verify electrical performance, guess which area might have gotten neglected.
Virtually all the manufacturers have returned to an all FEP construction for insulation, for a host of sound reasons. Last month, Berk-Tek, the cable manufacturer who owns the patent for the 2x2 hybrid cable construction, came out with a very strong fire performance message recommending a return to the 100% FEP insulation for the CAT 5 Plenum Cable constructions.
For quite some time, most cable manufacturers have been aware of a serious fire hazard safety problem. However, from a standards point-of-view, you have to ask yourself, who is really driving the ship? Ask who will be responsible if the cable is retested after installation and no longer qualifies as CMP listed. Everyone may be charged with accountability as the attorneys go on a witch hunt.
Over six months ago, we asked the EIA/TIA about end user involvement on the standards committee for CAT 5 cabling. We are still waiting for an answer. There is a great deal of political in-fighting as each mega manufacturer maneuvers to position their product in the standard and eliminate their competition. Sometimes, it seems like a field and track event with everyone wearing concrete boots. One reader commented that watching the "Independent Standards Groups"at work was like watching them rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic after the iceberg had already hit. Unfortunately, these standards groups may be anything but independent. It's up to you to figure out who is really in charge.
Thank goodness we just got a ray of sunshine from Anixter (Skokie, IL, 847-677-2600), about the new Anixter Levels '97 Program, headed up by Frank Coletto and Pete Lockhart. Anixter Levels '97 Program redefines cabling performance characteristics and most importantly, gives us guidance in high performance areas where EIA/TIA cannot seem to agree on a standard.
Anixter, Inc., a global distributor of integrated communications systems and services, is launching Anixter Levels '97, the most recent update of its cable-performance specification program. Anixter Levels '97 defines the performance characteristics of unshielded twisted-pair (UTP) cabling beyond 100MHz, a parameter necessary for advanced applications such as intranet technology, three-dimensional imaging, multimedia programs, video to the desktop, computer-aided design and broadband video.
The revised program builds on the ANSI/TIA/EIA-568-A Commercial Building Telecommunications Cabling Standard, which defines the expectations and limitations of cable and provides structure and direction for technological advances.
In announcing the program, Anixter's senior vice president - structured cabling systems, Gary Conrad, said, "Because it takes many years to ratify a standard, portions of ANSI/TIA/EIA-568-A have become obsolete. Therefore, implementing advanced applications could cause cable that adheres to today's standards to fail in the future. I don't think many of us in the network-infrastructure industry, including Anixter, could have predicted that applications requiring increased bandwidth would be developed so quickly that a lot of standard Category 5 cable would become electrically insufficient. Although Anixter has always stayed one step ahead of the industry in defining and evaluating performance requirements, the standards organizations have been hard pressed to keep up with the developers of applications and access methods."
Anixter Levels '97 divides cable into three performance levels. Cable specified as Level 5 must meet the more stringent requirements for Category 5 cables as spelled out in the international standard ISO 11801, which allows cables meeting its requirements to be used globally. Level 6 increases cable performance to what some in the industry have called high-end Cat 5 or Cat 5+ cables. Finally, a new generation of recently launched products that meet at least twice the Cat 5 bandwidth requirement constitute Level 7.
To be considered a specific Anixter level, cable must pass specification tests at the Anixter Structured Cabling Lab in Mount Prospect, Illinois. All Anixter levels cable must meet a stringent four-pair crosstalk measurement called powersum testing.
Obviously, not all cable manufacturers distribute their products primarily through Anixter and not all of the manufacturers feel comfortable with the Anixter Levels Program. Just because a cable is not rated by Anixter, doesn't mean that it doesn't meet or exceed Anixter's standards.
The Berk-Tek article, "Fire Safety: Does Your Category 5 Cable Measure Up?", appearing in the March issue of Cabling Business Magazine, has created quite a ripple effect in the cabling industry. It even extends to the Internet. A lot of the cabling web sites and chat groups on WWW are beginning to buzz about the fire safety of communications cabling. Combine this with the special April 15 meeting called by UL to address fire safety concerns, and fire safety might even reach shock wave status by the time this issue publishes. To say that the big end users we've talked to are "interested" in these matters would be a gross understatement. They are eager to get their hands on the latest information so they can make better, more informed cabling decisions. When the subject turns to life safety and property protection, everyone listens.
From what we've gleaned from industry contacts and a lot of research into fire safety performance, three problem areas are surfacing.
- Some hybrid constructions (2x2's and 3x1's) may have variable fire performance properties. Sometimes they pass code requirements, sometimes they don't. This is where Berk-Tek's call for headroom makes sense and UL is investigating.
- If certain hybrid constructions do pass, then there's still the question of long term stability. Remember the new insulation materials used as a substitute for FEP are compounds with a lot of different ingredients.
- There is more code work to be done to more precisely define what is permitted in plenum installations, based on fuel load and the NFPA (National Fire Protection Agency) requirement for "Limited Combustibles".
It's ironic that "new problems" can be avoided with "old solutions". We've consistently recommended 4x0, 100% FEP insulation when electrical performance and fire safety are top concerns. What can possibly be gained by saving a few pennies with something less than the best?