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With IP Comes IT…

...And Custom Installers Stand to Benefit

As content such as music, movies, and photographs shift from the analog to the digital domain, IP devices for the home offer more control and flexibility over a homeowners residential networks. As Colorado vNets Bill Beierwaltes pointed out, in the case of audio and video that means heavy loads of information being transferred over a skinny wire. That is where Internet Protocol (IP) comes in.

Today, systems extend not only beyond single rooms and into the entire house, but outside the home as well, noted Tim Cutting, CEO and co-founder of Niveus Media in Los Gatos, California. IP is the pipeline, and we are bringing in these dynamic systems that are, in some ways, very advanced computing devices that evolve very quickly with technology, and, because of that IP backbone, they are not only dynamic systems in one room, but they are dynamic for the entire house and beyond the house, he said. This is something that you just dont get in the analog world of days past.

The beauty of IP is that it can be applied to a host of devices and appliances, allowing for real, complete integration of almost every product in the home. Herman Cardenas, founder and chairman of the board of NetStreams, cited items as disparate as IP-based thermostats and televisions. Manufacturers are recognizing that IP offers better benefits to the end user, and organizations such as thermostat companies have jumped on the IP bandwagon, he said. We believe that IPTV is going to revolutionize the entertainment industry, much like buying music via iTunes has done. If you have 255 channels in your home, of which 200 you never watch, now you dont have to, and you shouldnt have to, pay for that.

Several years ago, the invention of a refrigerator that e-mailed the grocery store when a homeowner was running out of milk may have seemed like something only Gene Roddenberry would have conceived of; now, such features are a reality. As this technology pushes its way up and connectivity improves, people start looking at what opportunities that offers them, said Robert Noble, vice president of product management at AMX in Richardson, Texas.

Tim Dygert, vice president of systems engineering at ELAN Home Systems, said he believes that IP networking has become more clear-cut over the last several years. Many ethernet routers and switches are available today that require little if any configuration and the wire runs are easily handled by custom installers and homeowners alike, he noted. The issue, he added, is determining what level of firewall protection is needed between the home network and the Internet. Depending on the needs of the customer, this can be very complex and require the services of someone with IT training and experience.

Still, cashing in on what IP has to offer requires custom installers to hit the booksor the classroom, or even the computer screento brush up on their networking skills. This training, most agree, is important if the custom installation community wants to set itself apart from the average big-box retailer. For the people who have made a point to re-educate themselves in this category, there is a great opportunity, because now these products are, in some ways, too complicated for the end users to set up, and there is a real call to action for custom installers to provide that value of a custom solution, to get all of the rooms working together, and to get all of the devices working together, Cutting said, adding that this is especially important for those end users who want to access the more sophisticated features on their systems.

Beyond that, with media servers in particular, there is the whole value-add on top of that of getting the media to work every better, so that all of the music shows up in every room of the house, or so that the customer has a personal experience based on which room of the house they are in, Cutting continued. There are a lot of customization options that the custom installer brings to the table that I believe you will not get if you go to a big-box retailer for a product.

Like Cutting, Noble believes that to provide these services, custom installers need to take the time to learn a bit of Networking 101. There is that nascent level of knowledge that they must acquire, he said. They dont have to be a Microsoft Certified network engineeryou dont have to go to that extremebut there is a set of basics that you need to know and understand on how things work. Through AMX University, the manufacturer offers courses both online and in the classroom that focus on the basics of networking and troubleshooting.

As an increasing amount of technology moves away from the hard-wired infrastructure, training becomes even more of an issue. Crestrons wireless control panels that integrate with XP- and CE-based products, require dealers to not only understand traditional networking, but wireless IP networking as well. Some dealers are confused about the differences between dynamic and static IP addresses and the proper use of them, said Bill Schafer, director of product and channel development at Crestron. He and colleague George Tucker, manager of applications engineering/tech support, noted that Crestrons sponsored InfoComm course is now available online; in addition, the manufacturer will soon be offering web-based Quick Courses designed to require 15 minutes to an hour of a dealers time, depending on the subject matter.

Wireless networking technology such as 802.11 a/b/g is not as straightforward, especially if support is needed in portable devices, Dygert agreed. In addition to having lower total bandwidth than ethernet networks, wireless is susceptible to many interference sources and does not provide consistent access and bandwidth over the coverage area. Installing and configuring multiple wireless access points to enhance the performance of the network becomes more complex.

For a while now, the industry has witnessed the blurring line between A/V and IT, and with remote monitoring capabilities, custom installers are offering services that were once reserved for the commercial realm. In a way, Cutting observed, todays residences arent just equipped with elaborate entertainment systems, but full-fledged data centers that rival what many small businesses are employing. I think that home IT trend is going to be a big one, and it is driving companies like us to deliver on the devices and start demanding more of that type of infrastructure and custom support, he said.

Carolyn Heinze is a freelance writer/editor.