AV/IT Implementations Demystified
Updated: Mar 3, 2020
The ever evolving and simultaneously converging AV/IT space is far different than when I started in the Pro-AV industry 10 years ago. I arrived in the industry just in time to catch the analog sunset, i.e. the period when major PC manufacturers were starting to phase out 15-pin VGA ports to support new standards such as HDMI and DisplayPort. Cut to today, we are seeing large quantities of ultra high-definition video streams routed across the IT network using 1 and 10-gigabit managed network switches. Software-based audio signal processors packaged in a .Zip file. Cloud-based video conferencing tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams enabling face-to-face communication using off-the-shelf USB devices. The days of the $30,000 video conferencing codec are all just about gone.
The AV/IT Dilemma
Technological advancements and convergence of audiovisual and IT systems pose some challenges on the implementation side of projects, as the lines blur between whose scope carries what product and service. When multiple technology contractors are involved, the managing of an implementation can decide the fate of the success of the client's technology investment.
The common misconception is that AV/IT covers everything audiovisual, low-voltage, and information technology related. This is a misnomer and in-part the fault of the industry for using an oversimplified term. In reality, AV/IT refers to different yet similar aspects of a technology eco-system that clients require in today's modern workspace. Most AV-centric contractors refer to "IT" only in the terms that it applies to the AV systems. Below is a brief primer on the differences and key considerations when managing an AV/IT implementation.
AV vs Telecom Cabling
AV data cabling and Telecom structured data cabling are not necessarily the same thing. The AV data drops show up on the construction drawings as typical data outlets (little black/white triangles), but who is responsible for installing them? Who terminates the wall plate and provides the patch cord between the plate and the AV device? The AV contractor or the low-voltage contractor? These are questions that can oftentimes lead to confusion, frustration, and even duplication of efforts (and costs) if not carefully coordinated ahead of time.
For one, the data cabling used to distribute AV signals in some cases is a completely different specification than the cabling used, to say, send your Word document to the printer (i.e. shielded vs. unshielded cabling). You'll see in the signal sketch below that the red and blue dashed lines represent data cabling intersecting a multi-zone sound system for a retail/restaurant. Some of the data is dedicated for AV, while some is for network and control traffic.
Key Takeaway: Determining who is providing and installing which items and their associated low-voltage cabling is a critical planning consideration. The blue dashed lines represent data network cables most of which is provided by the low-voltage cabling contractor, whereas the red dashed lines are Dante audio cabling most of which is provided by the AV contractor.
Telecommunication vs IT Systems
We've determined which contractor is installing all of the data cabling and which one is providing the user devices. Now, how does this all talk to the network? The term "telecommunications" has many inferences, but in the infrastructure context it's referring back to all of that copper and fiber structured cabling system. That intravenous and tendon network inside the skin of the building that brings the life blood of data to users inside the workplace.
A standard telecommunication or structured cabling installation is essentially just that, cabling (and the hardware to support that cabling). No IT Switches. No internet routers. No Servers. No Email Services. All of that falls under "IT". Once all of the phones and displays are installed and all the structured cabling is in place, there needs to be connection to the IT network where all of the client's business and operational applications reside. This is where it is absolutely critical to have the client's IT representative (and any managed service providers) integrated with the project team as they're the experts in the corporate IT policies and procedures. They must review the entire design to make sure there are no security vulnerabilities being posed by any new systems. They can assist in configuring sub-networks (VLAN's and/or subnets) to separate printer data traffic flow from video conferencing data flow. They'll make sure devices that need a connection to the internet can get out to the public internet securely.
Key Takeaway: It is extremely important for your client's IT team to be involved in the AV/IT implementation. If the client does not have an IT representative available, extra emphasis must be placed on the project managers and 3rd party vendors to ensure a secure and stable system is in place, despite a lack of IT standards from which to work.
IT vs ISP
Information Technology (IT) and Internet Service Provider (ISP) are not synonymous, yet entirely symbiotic. The IT system is comprised of the aforementioned structure cabling system plus any of the client's IT network devices, such as switches, servers, firewalls, gateways, and wireless controllers, and finally all of the software business-specific applications (CRM, email, production drives, active directory, etc.).
In most cases the ISP's responsibility stops at the building entrance facility, or demarcation, or Main Point of Entry (MPOE), whatever you like. Any cabling past that point is usually the responsibility of the building owner or tenant. This is especially true in commercial office buildings with multiple tenants as the building owner will want to provide different service-provider options for their tenants. The building owner providing a "shared backbone" allows multiple different service providers to get service throughout the building to tenants. Many commercial properties already have contracts in place with ISP's who can provide the service and network router (and in some cases the vertical backbone cabling), but they must be coordinated with to ensure internet is in place prior to commissioning. You also need to make sure that any pathway infrastructure for that fiber backbone cabling is in place by the electrical contractor.
Key Takeaway: In a new fit out or build, supplying internet means supplying the necessary pathways for fiber backbone cabling in addition to the internet router. If the building has existing contracts in place, these vendors must be notified that new service to the suite is required well in advance.
AV vs Cable TV
Just because the AV contractor is installing the LCD displays doesn't mean they're making sure your favorite 24-hour news network is going to work. The AV contractor installs the displays, local signal distribution from AV switches, and any wired or wireless hardware that allows sources to be shown (i.e. laptops, tablets, computers, etc.). The demarcation for the AV contractor is the cable box (many times located in the AV equipment rack), where they will take the signal into their AV system for distribution to displays, speakers, and touch controllers.
As with the internet service, it's common for the CATV service provider to bring service to the building demarcation point, with service being distributed to the tenant suites via the buildings structured cabling backbone. From there it is split and amplified to the different set-top boxes for ingestions into the actual "AV system". In some cases, the CATV provider provides the extension from the service entrance into the building, by way of copper coax cable (plus taps and in-line signal amplifiers). The demarcation for the AV integrator is the cable box, where they will take the signal into their AV system for distribution to displays, speakers, and touch controllers.
Key Takeaway: Don't assume the AV contractor is doing anything with the Cable TV system other than providing the HDMI port that will plug into the Cable set-top box. Make sure the Cable TV service provider is engaged so they know how many set-top boxes are needed, what connectivity they require, how much space they will occupy in the AV equipment rack, and if there is existing coax cabling to the AV equipment room/rack. If cabling is not in place, make sure pathways are planned to bring cabling from the nearest point of existing service.