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© Copyright  2001-2011

The Last 100 Yards

By A.J. “Tony” DeBella © 2001, A.J. “Tony” DeBella

            The true promise – and value – of the Internet has always been a function of one basic factor: Speed. Simply stated, the faster data can be transmitted over the wire, the greater the Net’s potential for business, entertainment, and personal applications.

This need for speed has traditionally caused attention to focus on designing and installing broadband infrastructure for what is known as the “last mile.” This phrase refers to the distance between the point of presence, or POP, which is the physical location of the phone company providing the service, and the end user.

However, there is a portion of this last mile that has emerged as perhaps the most difficult – but certainly most essential – segment: the last 100 yards. While running fiber optic cabling to the front door of a building is clearly a necessary first step toward delivering the benefits of broadband connectivity, the true payoff is effective delivery into the individual office suites and to the desktops of individual users.

This last 100 yards has always been troublesome. Most buildings still have what are called “plain old telephone systems” (POTS), which utilize old-fashioned twisted copper wires – the so-called “gray cabling” that has long constituted the structural wiring. The problem is that these systems cannot accommodate the demands of broadband connectivity; they just are not big enough for the data to flow through. You end up with a lot of frustrated business people wasting their time at computers, waiting for simple documents, e-mails, or graphics to come up on their screens.

Technology firms responded to the challenges presented by this older system by developing what are called “smart buildings.” These properties have a large, high-speed fiber optic infrastructure installed, commonly referred to as a fat pipe.  It runs through a multiplexer inside the structure. The multiplexer splits the single line into separate lines for broadband multimedia, i.e., voice, data, and video, which, in turn, enables service to be delivered to each individual user on every floor. By providing a broader bandwidth the fat pipe allows more information to be transmitted over a single line, faster than before, with greater image fidelity.

There are four steps in the delivery of high-speed broadband connectivity over the last 100 yards. The first, mentioned earlier, is getting wire to the front door of the building. The second is getting the wire from the front door to the main telephone closet (MTC). The third is getting it from the MTC to the intermediate telephone closets (ITCs), which are located on each floor and serve every user in every space on that floor. And the fourth is getting it from the ITC to the customer-premise equipment (CPE), i.e., the desktop computer.

The last 100 yards starts at the MTC and ends at the CPE. The fat pipe runs from the main telephone closet to the intermediate telephone closet through the property’s backbone, or riser. In many cases, the existing backbone riser may be large enough to effectively route cable throughout the building. In others, however, the riser’s size may have to be increased in order to accommodate the fiber optic cable needed to assure the right bandwidth. In still others, where the existing infrastructure is just not adequate, a new riser pipe will be necessary.

This brings us to a critical point: future-proofing your building.

It’s no secret that technology changes by the day. What may be the best new thing today may be yesterday’s news tomorrow. When designing a building, or making determinations about how to upfit existing structures, it is important to plan ahead.

For example, an existing riser that supports the last 100 yards might well be sufficient to satisfy current broadband demands, but does it leave you with the flexibility to grow or expand in the future? Does your infrastructure provide the adaptability to accommodate likely future communications technologies that businesses may not be able to do without? Do you want to roll the dice, gambling that what you have now will be what you need down the road?

The key to making the right decisions is to align yourself with suppliers, vendors, and partners who understand the technology and infrastructure of your specific industry. There are firms that specialize in large, skyscraper Class A buildings, and others that specialize in smaller Class B and C buildings. They know the connectivity issues involved in the last 100 yards, and they know how to address them. The value of an alliance with experts cannot be stressed enough.

In the end, the true potential of high-speed broadband connectivity can be found in the last 100 yards. The reason is simple: this is where the technology meets the customer, client, or tenant. It’s a little like running a race. You can do everything necessary to get yourself in a position to win when the last mile comes along.  But you won’t win if you aren’t prepared to sprint the last 100 yards.

Questions and Answers.

Does all this apply to my apartment building?

 Of course. Even though the structure of commercial and residential building is nearly the same, multi-tenant residential buildings have a greater need for Internet delivery to individual apartments. Bridging the last 100 yard gap allows your tenants to receive superior Internet access that feeds directly into their computer systems. And broadband benefits for property owners include stabilized tenant rates, increased property values, and opportunities to attract higher rents.

Suppose I decide not to go the last 100 yards and rely on my POTS, what would be the difference in performance achievable in my building, compared with one that is upgraded to fiber optic throughout?

It reduces the speed of your Internet connectivity, thus reducing productivity, because tenants, customers, will waste time waiting for documents and websites to open up. It would literally defeat the purpose of wiring a building.

If I decide to upgrade my building, about how much will it cost per unit to do it, $5, $500, $5000?

Depending on the fiber count, costs range from $1,500 to $2,000 per floor in labor and materials.  For example, a 50-story building could cost from $75,000 to $100,000.

Not all of my tenants may need or want high-speed broadband connectivity.  Does it make economic or technological sense to wire up some of my units and offer them at a premium and leave others alone?

One common misconception about broadband connectivity is that installation and services are fixed costs. In actuality, the costs are significantly lower because individual tenant networks have fewer users and the buildings require less overall bandwidth. Beyond that, remember that broadband is “future-proof,” and as technology and Internet applications rapidly increase, so will your tenants’ need and demand for faster connections.

How, specifically, should I go about selecting a contractor to upgrade my building?  What should I look for?  Is there a trade association like, say, roofers, plumbers, and electricians have?

- When considering broadband access, building owners should look for three characteristics: experience, geographic reach, and risk level. Make sure that your contractor has experience, not only in the installation and design of advanced systems, but also experience with your kind of building. Second, because most vendors are located in big cities, subcontractors, not the selected contractor, often complete jobs that are in rural areas, so you may not be getting the skill, expertise and understanding you think you’re paying for.  And reduce any risk by seeking out contractors that have been certified by partners for specific functions such as cabling, fiber optic network installation, etc., and be sure to get written guarantees that the work meets or exceeds industry standards.

You haven’t said anything about maintenance.  What kind of maintenance does the kind of system you describe require, what is likely to go wrong with it and how often, and how much does maintenance and repair cost as compared with other building systems?

Mean time between failures is almost 0% (the system is up and running 99.9%). Depending on your building’s system configuration, repair labor can run between $75-$100 an hour plus materials.

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