PoE Advances Spell Opportunity

New IEEE standards and PoE emergence in AV systems design.

One of the most profound sensations we experience in life is the anticipation of waiting for something we’ve long wanted to become a reality. When we first get an inkling of it coming, it can be exciting; however, all too often, the waiting can turn us cynical…even turn us away from the thing we wanted so much. The audiovisual industry, and low-voltage contracting, is currently experiencing this buzz right now, as we await the adoption of the latest amendment to the 802.3 standards from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering (IEEE).

For those who are unaware, there are a few different types of power over category cabling certified by the IEEE. Type 1 is based on the IEEE 802.3af, which allows up to 15.4W of power using 2-pair for Power over Ethernet (PoE). Type 2 (IEEE 802.3at) allows up to 30W using 2-pair PoE+ on a category cable. We’ve been dealing for quite some time with these limitations in getting power over category cabling. Over the last two years, though, IEEE has been moving forward with the Type 3 and Type 4 approvals.

Type 3 (proposed IEEE standard 802.3bt) would allow us to utilize up to 60W of power using four pairs of PoE on a single category cable. Type 4, though, is what will make HDBaseT’s 5Play promise finally become a reality. Assuming that the proposed IEEE 802.3bt is ratified, Type 4 would allow us to pass 90W of power using four pairs of PoE on a single category cable.

The ratification of the amendment had been anticipated to be approved as early as the end of the 2017, but the amendment draft is still in committee. As standards can often take years to complete, it’s difficult to say precisely how quickly it will move from draft to adopted standard. However, it is certain that the standard is coming, and we must be prepared for its implications.

HDBaseT Fulfilling Its Promise

This has been the dream for HDBaseT since its inception. The ability to pass audio, video, control, Ethernet and power over a single category connection means that manufacturers can develop product with the signal converters already built in. We have seen this to a minimal extent, but one of the biggest drawbacks that we’ve had is that, even if we wanted to expand, there is always the requirement of local power to drive the display, projector or any other device we happen to want to add to the system. As PoE is considered a low-voltage electrical signal, having to use an electrical contractor isn’t necessarily a requirement anymore. Want a new display? All you’d need is proper backing and a data port.

Ninety watts of power finally reaches a level that makes sense for audiovisual professionals because, using one cable, we could power most small displays; with a second HDBaseT connection on the hardware, we would have the ability to power some of the larger displays that we use. However, we now have to start to explore whether a centralized power distribution model over category cabling is the best way to look at the future of integrating all devices. Is there a limitation that must be considered for which devices should be driven with this power model?

Because larger HDBaseT systems can be designed using a central distribution model to move the signal from input to output (i.e., a divisible room application), and given the fact that the data connections are often all coming from an intermediate distribution frame (IDF) or building distribution frame (BDF) closet on the floor, there is a certain practicality to the distribution of power in this manner. The switches to provide that level of power are not on the market yet (with one proprietary exception), so this isn’t yet an immediate solution, but it’s something at which we must start to look. Will AV consultants and design-build contractors have to become more involved with the rack room layout to ensure the space is sufficient for the amount of power distribution that we will need? Are we prepared to participate in that conversation? Do we have the base of knowledge to understand the code requirements of IDF room construction? This could easily become required training for every design firm.

The Resurgence Of Cable Calculations

The audiovisual industry is well ahead of the curve when it comes to using PoE to power our devices. In our commercial projects we’re well acquainted with using PoE to power potentially hundreds of devices that we supply and install. Often, though, we’ve relied on PoE insertion devices located at the endpoint to alleviate the issue of trying to drive the necessary wattage all the way out to the device from a central location.

Using centralized distribution from the PoE generating switches in order to reduce the need for local power at the devices means the understanding of power loss through the cable becomes all the more vital. How much power will be lost on a 100-foot Cat5e cable run versus a 180-foot Cat6a cable run? Will there be enough to drive the device? The instances in which cable calculations are most important to consider for the audiovisual industry are low- and high-impedance speaker distribution, as well as CATV systems. Knowing how to calculate the difference, so as to ensure the correct cable is chosen, will be vital.

Additionally, because of the potential amount of wattage that can be sent down a single category cable, there must also be consideration given to how much heat that cabling emits. Due to this safety issue, there has been a new UL certification introduced for category cabling: Limited Power (LP). The relevance of this new designation is that, without the LP certification, there are restrictions to the bundling size of the category cabling. The larger the centralized PoE distribution system, the more cabling will be used. Using the proper cable so that efficient bundling can take place is a new requirement that most certainly must be taken into account as we explore the options for high-powered PoE and the systems that could start to become part of our purview.

There are many reasons to look at the emergence of high-powered PoE options and, at first glance, to think it won’t make much of a difference for commercial AV. Local power will still be more reliable, it’s ready today and it’ll always be considered as part of a project’s initial design, even if a technology consultant or design-build contractor has not been hired onto a project. But, before dismissing this as irrelevant, consider the direction in which all industries are heading right now.

For the last two years, every trade show the audiovisual industry has hosted has ended with the primary takeaway being that everything we do is moving onto the network. We are continually pushing our industry to communicate on the network with other technologies, such as shade control, building management systems and lighting—all of which are still getting used to the idea of being on a converged network to communicate between the trades. That being the case, what’s to stop the audiovisual industry from looking at other industries now that high-power PoE means they’ve become low-voltage technologies?

Currently, there’s nothing to stop us from placing building-management sensors onto the networks that we either provide or integrate with in order to receive and transmit command signals. Is the room occupied? Yes. Based on that network command, turn on the lights and turn on the display. That sensor is simply lower-powered PoE.

Take that a step further and look at how, using high-powered PoE options, audiovisual integrators could start to place full lighting systems on the network—without having to get high-voltage signals to them at all. Suddenly, each light has an IP address on the network. The lights in each office can be controlled via the same control panel as is used for conference rooms. Better yet, they could be controlled through an app on a personal device; the user could be granted permissions by a network administrator to control specific lighting fixtures, based on his or her geolocation in the building, or by booking a specific office or desk space for the day.

Now, we find ourselves with the ability to fine-tune the control of our environment—lighting intensity and temperature, HVAC and shading—all because, suddenly, each of those sources is a network endpoint that allows us to have refined control of each device.

This is all a possibility, particularly as lighting fixtures continue to move to using LEDs as the light source, which, of course, require less power than their fluorescent counterparts do. The lighting manufacturers are recognizing that, with the addition of a PC board to the lights they already make, in order to receive that high-powered PoE, this isn’t a difficult transition.

Audiovisual integrators already know how to pull category cabling; they have the programming chops to set up lighting control systems; and they know how to set up and configure networks (thanks to all those air-gapped and isolated solutions that weren’t allowed onto a corporate LAN). Now, there’s no need for high voltage outside of the equipment closet. So, what’s to stop AV integrators from beginning to offer this as another service?

The New Seat At The Table

As John Mayberry lamented in Sound & Communications in February, AV appears to have “lost” its battle with IT, meaning that our systems are, for a variety of reasons, not allowed on the larger, converged building networks. Although it’s easy to agree with Mayberry’s point of view, enhanced PoE offers opportunities that will open up a new seat at the table earlier on in projects.

The IT administrators are going to see not only the opportunity to have each device in their building be a network endpoint, but also the opportunity to control the power distribution to those devices in a way that fits into their daily workflow. Suddenly, the switches aren’t just for data anymore, and these people are going to need advocates and partners.

All too often, IT administrators have elected to veer away from the services that audiovisual professionals offer, because they believed the soft codec flavor of the month was good enough for their company. It was easy to deploy, easy to manage and meant that each person, no matter the room they used, would have the same user experience, thus making it easy to use.

Audiovisual systems have been seen, in some instances, as an overpriced luxury—particularly for smaller corporate spaces. This made it easy for owners to choose to take the route described above. Lighting systems, however, are not a luxury; they are a requirement. By expanding the services of our industry to include PoE lighting, we give ourselves the opportunity to take a seat at the table that might not have been available to us before. It’s one more system that will exist on a truly converged network.

The audiovisual industry doesn’t have to exist outside of that converged network. It has the opportunity to justify the converged network growing to accommodate the potential that our systems offer, and doing so earlier on in the project, so that the design can incorporate the bandwidth requirements. If we can manage to get a seat at the table by offering the lighting solution, it provides the opportunity to upsell the potential experience we can create for end users and administrators.

Some who read this might scoff at a “pie-in-the-sky” vision of what AV integrators could provide in the near future. So, let’s make a few concessions: No, the standards haven’t yet been adopted by the IEEE. That means that there’s technically no product available. We also face a concern about what the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) might have to say about non-union contractors pulling wire that powers lighting systems. There are also regulatory hurdles that must be overcome and understood; one example is Title 24 in California, which dictates the requirements for “energy conservation, green design, construction and maintenance, fire and life safety, and accessibility.” Those requirements apply to many systems, including electrical, in building design.

However, the biggest hurdle we face is the adoption of an entirely new way of doing things. We have to start to talk to clients very early on in any project about this being an option for them, and we must be able to demonstrate that we understand the true value of this new way of doing things. That includes being able to answer the “Why?” question, to wit, why would we suddenly want to start to power all the devices using category cabling, anyway?

First, all of these devices are on the network anyway. So, instead of having to run power directly to them, we can now use category cable to get a network connection for control and bring power to that location, all at the same time. Second, there’s an energy-efficiency value that comes with this methodology. With a typical AC circuit, the outlet is always in an “on” state. That means there is electricity traveling down the line regardless of whether something is plugged in. By using the category cabling power-distribution method, a data connection exists that tells the switch that provides the power that there is a device connected; only then would there be power actively traveling on the cable. This also means there’s an added safety feature: An electrical fire couldn’t be started by a short on an infrequently used power connection. Additionally, it would mean no one could accidentally shock himself or herself when working on site.

The audiovisual industry is often steadfast in wanting to “stay in our lane,” and we can be hesitant to expand into other building systems. In the past, this has made a great deal of sense, because of the specialized skills that are required for the other trades—working with high voltage, for example. But these systems all becoming powered by the network means the opportunity will be increasingly available for telecommunications contractors, electrical contractors and audiovisual integrators to design and build them. Why give away the opportunity to the industries that are becoming our competition as all industries’ products move toward becoming just more network endpoints?

Through strategic partnerships, or via mergers and acquisitions, which we have seen a great deal of in the last few years, the audiovisual industry is in a prime spot to expand our service offerings quickly. We are focused on being the trade that provides the exceptional experience. We are the trade that is often the end user’s interface to the building. Our systems communicate with all the other systems that make the building operate. And, now, we are on the precipice of those other trades being more accessible than ever…being something we can provide directly to our clients. Yes, there is added risk in reaching beyond what we’ve always known. In this case, though, the added risk will also bring immense opportunity to those who choose to step up and be the complete building systems contractor for their clients.

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