Wiring may be the last thing on your mind -- but it shouldn't be

Quick -- when was the last time you thought about the wiring in your office? A long time ago? Never? Why on earth would you ever think about it? Because today your business depends on the information carried by wires -- telephone calls, fax messages, computer data. As the next century nears, you will depend even more on electronic communications -- networks linking people and machines within your company and those connecting you to customers and electronic-mail services worldwide. As your business expands you will outgrow your wiring as surely as you will your office space.

But why, you ask, do I need to think about the wiring? Shouldn't my architect or contractor take care it? Can't I hire a consultant? Certainly -- but the specialized wiring needs of a modern office have developed too recently for contractors to have gained much experience, and good consultants are hard to find. In the end, no one can take your place in charting the direction your company will go or the new technologies you might add.

How much and what kind of wiring you have in your office depends in part on its age. Older buildings may have only the basics: AC power and two telephone lines to each office. Newer offices may have three or four phone lines per office. Adding electronic gear usually means adding more wiring -- a hassle, to be sure, but also an opportunity to plan ahead.

You can save time and money by installing several types of wire at the same time. In older buildings, for example, where wiring between floors or across a wall can be difficult, whenever you install one type of wire, go ahead and install every type you're likely to use -- for computer networks, video, audio, and more phones. (See "Getting from Here to There," page 2, to see which functions you can run on various wires.)

I recommend adding these: four 8-conductor telephone cables, an Ethernet thick coaxial cable to carry data over long distances, two cable-television-style cables, and four pairs of 14-gauge speaker wire (zip cord). If you might use large (room-size) computers someday, toss in two IBM token-ring cables as well. If you plan to get many more phones, use 50-conductor telephone cable instead of 8-conductor.

Only 10 or 20 feet of each wire need be installed, just enough to cross the difficult wall or ceiling. Each wire should be left unconnected within easy reach on either side and carefully labeled. Your total cost should run under $100 -- or even less if your installer has short strands left over from other jobs. When you are ready to hook up new computers or start video conferencing, you'll only need to add connectors to the loose ends of the wires.

The easiest time to rethink and install wiring is when building or remodeling your office. Some suggestions: try to have all the power lines (a potential fire hazard) installed in conduits. With power lines isolated, building codes usually allow PVC insulation for the other wires instead of heat-resistant Teflon, which costs four times as much. Always run 8-conductor telephone cable, not 4- or 6-conductor, to each office. It supports four telephone lines and costs only slightly more.

Rooms that might eventually contain the hub of a computer network should have a separate electrical circuit for the computer equipment so the hub won't fail if someone in an adjacent office accidentally trips a circuit breaker. These rooms should also have a second 8-conductor telephone cable for expansion, and cabling for your local area network. If you want a paging system, string the audio cable in zones, so departments can be paged separately. Video cable should connect conference rooms and three outside points: the nearest cable-television tap, roof antenna, and satellite-dish locations.

This may seem like a lot of extra trouble -- especially since a thin strand of glass called fiber-optic cable will someday replace everything except the power lines. But fiber won't be up and running for at least 10 years, and until then we have to worry about wire.



Which wires do what

* Voice can travel over phone lines or separate intercom wiring (speaker wire). It can also be broadcast over the air or relayed via satellite and microwave links (radio and television).

* Fax runs over telephone lines.

* Video, unless broadcast or relayed by microwave, runs over coaxial cable.

* Computer data can travel over a variety of wires at many different cost and performance levels. Fiber-optic cable can carry 5,000 or more pages (at 1,800 characters per page) per second over several miles. Coaxial cable for local area networks typically carries 500 pages per second over about 1,000 feet. Two telephone-type cables can carry 50 to 100 pages per second for a few hundred feet; a single phone line can carry some 15 pages per second.

Computer data can also be sent over a phone line normally used for voice, but the computer signals must first be converted into audio tones by modem. The fastest modems run at about a page per second; most send just a tenth of a page per second, far slower than a local area network.

You can also send data over AC power lines with special adapters called power-line modems. The units from Carrier Current Technologies Inc., in Durham, N.C., can handle up to two pages per second. They are most often used when several computers share a single printer, but software is also available for transferring files and for electronic mail.