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Coax Vs. Twisted Pair

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June 01, 2002
Gary Kolbeck

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© 2002 Hospitality Upgrade. No reproduction without written permission.

In a market where profitability depends on minimizing near-term capital expenses while ensuring future viability and technological competitiveness, hoteliers should carefully weigh the implications of using either coax or UTP infrastructure to deliver digital content, interactive TV services and HSIA.

Guest expectations mandate a hotel TV infrastructure capable of delivering far more than on-demand movies and free-to-guest programming. It must also be able to support multiple types and formats of analog, digital and Internet content, as well as data networking. While coaxial cable (coax) and unshielded twisted pair (UTP) infrastructures have each evolved in response to these demands, each is still associated with its primary application(s) and attendant hardware.

Traditionally, the hotel’s coax infrastructure has delivered audio and video programming via the guestroom television, while the UTP infrastructure has supported voice and Internet service through the telephone and a laptop connection, respectively. Since virtually every hotel has both coax and UTP infrastructures in place (or budgeted, in the case of new builds), the decision of which infrastructure to pursue for digital to the room (D2R) viability must go beyond the expediency of the moment and account for future considerations.

Hoteliers should carefully consider the following when evaluating the viability of cable and UTP infrastructures as part of a strategic D2R migration plan:

  • Industry Sponsorship and Standards. The migration to digital VOD has been driven by cable companies and direct broadcast satellite (DBS) providers, which provide basic programming and VOD to their customers over coax-based networks. The robustness of these systems can be seen by their success supporting increased content delivery and the first residential interactive TV deployments. By backing digital cable with their immense resources and leverage, cable and DBS players have caused worldwide Digital Video Broadcast standards to be established, hardware costs to drop and research and development efforts to accelerate. UTP infrastructure development, on the other hand, is unlikely to reach critical mass any time soon given that the telephone companies’ much-hyped deployments of residential VOD over UTP have not materialized.
  • Content Availability. As a result of cable/DBS sponsorship and standardization, the vast majority of today’s digital video and audio content – as well as interactive TV programming – is developed for coax infrastructures. Movie and music sources are now licensing content for digital distribution over coax, their longstanding security concerns having been mitigated by the emergence of broadcast standards and the inherently closed nature of coax networks. For the same reasons it could be years before UTP infrastructures deliver the breadth of digital TV content guests can already enjoy through coax systems today.
  • HDTV Compatibility. Both coax and UTP can support most current audio and video formats; however, the migration to HDTV programming will require hotel infrastructures that not only support a broad range of formats but also provide the required bandwidth. A single HDTV video stream requires 19 Mb/sec of bandwidth – well within the capacity of a coax infrastructure, but not possible over a typical 10 Mb/sec UTP network without significant architecture and hardware upgrades.
  • Hybrid Digital/Analog Capability. Coax infrastructures support a hybrid transport model, wherein digital VOD content and analog free-to-guest programming flow through the same cable. As digital cable channels become available, they can be added to coax systems without costly wiring upgrades. Conversely, analog/digital systems cannot run over the same UTP line; the hotel must maintain separate UTP and coax plants for VOD and free-to-guest services. In many cases today’s UTP networks are being built-out to meet only VOD bandwidth demands. Distributing free-to-guest channels over that network would require substantial equipment upgrades to ensure the bandwidth needed for all rooms to simultaneously receive a channel.
  • HSIA. Increasingly, a high-speed Internet connection is becoming a guestroom requirement. While this connection has traditionally been made over UTP, it can now be provided over a coax infrastructure – in fact, the cable modem is the most popular access solution in the homes of high-speed Internet users.
  • Costs. Virtually every hotel has coaxial and UTP infrastructures in place or, in the case of new builds, has budgeted them into construction. The question is which infrastructure can facilitate D2R migration with the least initial investment and the lowest ongoing cost. A coax infrastructure today can deliver digital VOD, interactive guest services, TV and laptop HSIA and free-to-guest programming – all with little or no additional capital outlay. A UTP infrastructure today can also support those applications, provided: 1) the UTP wiring is at least CAT-5 (as opposed to the voice grade CAT-3 or lower wiring prevalent in hotels today); 2) a UTP outlet is present in close proximity to the television(s) in every room; and 3) a separate coax infrastructure is maintained and/or installed to deliver free-to-guest programming. Hoteliers must also factor in regular UTP maintenance and upgrade costs, which remain higher than their coax counterparts due to the lack of industry standards and the “planned obsolescence” built into UTP network components and software.

As D2R gains momentum, it is increasingly urgent that hoteliers address their infrastructure issues with an eye toward future positioning as well as current economics. Coax and UTP are each successfully delivering digital content, interactive services and high-speed Internet to hotel guests today. But in the light of standards, content availability, HDTV compatibility, digital/analog hybridization, high-speed Internet service, and initial and future costs, the coax infrastructure presents a more compelling viability proposition as a longer-term D2R solution.

Gary Kolbeck is director, systems engineering at LodgeNet Entertainment Corp.

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