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Incorporating Home Networking

Education is the key to making a good custom connection with home network installations.

With practically every new device capable of talking to the other technology that exists in a home, the definition of home networking grows increasingly unwieldy. For dealers, this requires some careful reflection on how they can incorporate the integration of entertainment systems, computers, security, lighting, and control into their service roster while avoiding pesky technical glitches and service calls that eat into profits.

Many people, when they hear the word network, think of computer networks, Ethernet, Cat-5, wireless networks, and so on. You can very easily slide that broad stroke over and say that networking is hooking these things together to make them work together, said Bill Schafer, director of product and channel development at Crestron. Really, thats what networking is.

According to Gordon van Zuiden, president of the Los Gatos, California-based cyberManor, custom installation companies dont have much of a choice when it comes to home networking. From my perspective, its something that everyone has to do, he said. Its integral to the entertainment systems in the home. Most custom installers are in business because they are experts in high-end audio/video integration. If you dont have home networking savvy, you are not able to best implement the movement of entertainment content to digital media, and the movement of digital content to the Internet as a resource. If you dont have those two things, you are really missing out on a much greater range of entertainment content and control.

The downside is that home networking isnt always a considerable moneymaker, said Grayson Evans of The Training Dept. Inc., in Tucson, Arizona. If the custom installer wants to take on traditional home networking interconnecting to computers and computer-related devices, and allowing the homeowner easy access to the Internet, thats a pretty straightforward product category. You either do it or you dont. The only downside, and we have known this for years, is that its not a big money-maker. Its more of a service. You use this product category to leverage other things and provide on-going, recurring revenue services. There are no margins in doing it, but its something that the installer can leverage. Offering home networking to a customer, he added, might make a difference between getting the job or not.

As residential technologies become more and more IT-based, installers must employ a different approach. All of this wire has to be home run; if they dont have the knowledge of the topology of home networks, and they think if they can split it and have a daisy-chain topology, that doesnt work, van Zuiden noted, adding that the systems have become a little easier to implement over the last several years. I think most people understand whats involved in terms of Cat-5 and switches. Its gotten a lot easier over the last two years. The set-up of the hardware is a lot more straightforward, and the operating systems from Apple and Microsoft both lend themselves to being networked, either hardwired or wirelessly, much easier than they used to be.

Robert Noble, vice president of product management for AMX in Richardson, Texas, notes that the sheer size of many high-end homes adds complexity to the integration of home networks. Sometimes, dealers underestimate and think its simple without doing the proper due diligence, he said. For many of these home installations, they are 10,000-30,000 square foot homes. They are small office buildings. You have to think with a network enterprise mentality: how do you cover this large space properly? People underestimate the complexity. Its not rocket science, but it does require a lot of logical thinking to get it installed.

Before they tell customers that they are capable of installing a home network, dealers must be properly educated. Custom installers, in general, are A/V people. They are not in the computer industry, Schafer said. The biggest mistake they make is selling themselves as being able to do that without going out and gaining that experience and knowledge.

Still, dealers must commit to continuing education in order to do the job right the first time. Evans noted that in many cases, custom installation companies may jump right into home networking without fully comprehending its scope. They dont have any education in this, they dont understand it. Things that worked at their house dont work at their customers, and they dont know what to do to fix it, he illustrated. Home networking can be very complicated. Its rooted with problems surrounding incompatibility of computers and computer software and equipment that doesnt work.

Scott Carpenter, AMXs product manager for wireless solutions, emphasized that companies today must have a firm grasp on IP-based systems. In terms of the future integration of home networking, most of the applications that we see are coming in on the IP front. Today there are music servers; tomorrow there will be video servers, he noted. There is going to be more TV availabilitymore options to stream video from the Internet. Those applications are going to ride on a home network. For dealers to become experts in installing this technology, they are going to have to understand IP. IP is driving the new applications. Dealers today, if they want to be successful in the future, are going to have start learning it.

Coupled with this challenge is the rather nebulous definition of where the custom installers responsibility ends, and where someone elses begins. Dealers dont always draw the line where they are responsible for installation and service, and where they are not, Evans observed. If a custom installation company installs structured cabling, their responsibility ends at the wall jack. What the customer plugs into that jack is their responsibility. Most custom installers will install a home network, and then take care of computers. That is a huge mistake, because that is a never-ending time sink that will consume them and make them go broke. They need to know what their strengths are. And, which technologies are weak, and which are going to evolve into reliable systems. The challenge, from a dealers perspective, is to look at things that are really going to stick.

For example, about two years ago, the 802.11a technology came out promising higher throughput and a different frequency band. That caught on in a few places, but on the whole, it never really caught on, Noble recalled. It migrated on into the 802.11g. That seems to stick, and people are working it pretty hard. This same challenge rolls back to us as a manufacturer, to be involved enough with the technology and determine which ones are going to stick, and which ones wont so that we can advise our dealers on which way its going to go.

The same principle applies to the selection of reliable products. Dealers need to make sure that what they are about to sell this customer works, and is a proven product, Schafer said. In certain markets in our industry, manufacturers race to become the cheapest, the fastest. That mentality has started to filter out into home networks, network controls, and things of that nature. But, there is no reliability factor there.

Thanks to the success of high-speed Internet and devices like the iPod, homeowners and not necessarily those who service themare demanding more out of home networking, underlining its importance on a custom installation companys service roster. Home networking has become such an integral portion of these projects that without that knowledge, you leave yourself exposed to another integrator in your area who has more of that knowledge, van Zuiden said. The builders, interior designers and architects arent always as aware of what networking can do, as they are about what A/V can do. I think the consumer, now, is more aware of what networks can do. They have that desire to have that infrastructure in the home.

Carolyn Heinze ([email protected]) is a freelance writer/editor.