Although this issue of CableTalk was meant to be devoted to fiber optics, South African copper cable manufacturer, Lambda Cables, has brought an alarming fact to my attention regarding the quality of copper Ethernet cabling being deployed into the local market.
This Pretoria-based manufacturer is wholly owned by the multinational cable specialist, the Aberdare Group, and, until recently, was the only manufacturer of data cabling in the SA arena. For the local market, the company manufactures Krone, Molex, and a wide range of custom-branded cables. Lambda also provides Telkom with much of its voice-grade copper connections, and exports its products to the broader international market. The organization recently supplied two 40-foot containers of UTP voice cabling to Spanish telco, Telefonica, which, it suspects, will shortly become the first telecommunications provider in the globe to deploy data-grade cabling systems in its infrastructure.
What the company is concerned about at the moment are the large amounts of cheap cabling being imported from the East, and deployed in installations where lowest cost is the biggest factor. Says David Marshall, Lambda MD: "We understand that, with the current state of the exchange rate, many smaller players are looking for cheaper solutions to reclaim lost margin. These are installers who do not qualify for the quantity-based price reductions that we offer our larger distributors. And, while we have adjusted our prices in an attempt to assist these players, you will always get cheaper cable, and, with no standards in SA to govern the quality of these imports, our industry is heading for serious trouble." Lambda has been conducting tests on these products entering the market, using the testing equipment it has on-site to ensure that cable coming out of the factory meets requirements. The results of these tests make interesting reading in terms of potential network performance, and, more worryingly, also show that cheap cabling constitutes a major fire hazard.
"The results from our impedance and return loss tests show the imported offerings to be well outside acceptable variances for Cat5e. Although the importers have printed the Underwriters Laboratories (UL) logo on the cable, it does not come close to being compliant with international standards," comments Marshall.
Although, initially, a customer with this equipment in his environment may find that he has connectivity, as soon as the system is loaded, and the cable asked to deliver its promised performance, he is likely to find that, suddenly, all throughput will simply evaporate into thin air. The only way to fix this would be to re-install a new infrastructure from scratch, at enormous cost.
The IEC-standard Bunsen burner testing shows the imported cable to be a major health hazard. When burned, PVC gives off poisonous HCl gas, which, in the European market, is recognized as being too much of a hazard, resulting in only low-smoke zero-halogen cabling being legal in this market. This inherent danger has meant that PVC-sheathed cable should include self-extinguishing qualities to minimize the risk to personal health, and to keep the cabled building from turning into a fire trap.
Marshall explains: "The imported cables that we have been testing ignite and burn like a candle wick. It is purely a cost thing, as these manufacturers have clearly used a lot of filler in their PVC coating to keep costs down. The end result is a cable which will burn end to end in the case of a fire, spewing hazardous materials as it goes." "We hope that it is not going to take a tragic death as a result of these properties before we can get the SABS to step in and implement some standards in our field, but fear that this might be the case."
According to Lambda, the Eastern sources of these inferior products do also produce very high quality cabling, but offer customers a sliding scale of cost, which, in a highly commoditized market, such as the one in which Cat5e in particular finds itself, is very tempting in order to squeeze that little bit of extra margin from these low-value deals.
Although you may object that most corporates today insist on putting in a certified, and therefore warrantied, solution from a reputable supplier, during which process such failures would be revealed, in fact only 30 percent of the implementations being done in the country today are certified. The remaining 70 percent of the business is contested purely on price, and it is here that the inferior products are making their biggest mark.
"The local data cabling industry players are all incredibly suspicious of one another in this cut-throat market, and of CCASA as well, for political reasons. If we could start sharing information and resources, we could get a countrywide cabling quality standard in place, and also resolve the host of credit-tripping scams currently taking their toll.
"The cable being deployed today as a cheap solution will only ultimately cost end-users, hopefully, just in cash resources, and not lost lives. As soon as that network is called upon to provide throughput for more demanding new-breed applications like VoIP, it will fall apart, and an entire infrastructure overhaul will be required before achieving any business benefits from the newer technology," concludes Marshall.