| By Dennis Mazaris, President & Founder, Concert Technologies
Published in Cabling Product News
The historic TIA TR-41.8.1 committee meeting held last November in San Antonio, TX will go into the high-tech annals as the battle over the new duplex fiber-optic connector. With a footprint at the size of an 8-position modular jack, this connector had five manufacturers--AMP-Siecor, IBM-Siecor, Lucent Technologies, Panduit, and 3M-vying to qualify their products as a standard and go on to a final-selection round early this year. The meeting, held near the site of the Alamo, appropriately turned into a no-holds-barred war. The ground rules for selection were set forth and agreed upon at the previous meeting in Quebec. A fiber-connector survey containing 12 criteria on which members of the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA--Arlington, VA) could vote from 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest) was given to the TR-41.8.1 committee. Evaluation sheets were filled in for each of the five competing manufacturers. After the surveys were completed, results were tabulated and returned to the committee for review. After the survey, there was a follow-up poll of TIA members-at-large. This poll was designed to eliminate all connectors that did not receive 50% or more votes of approval. Only voting TIA members could participate in this process, which meant there was only one vote per member company. Members could vote on one-to-five connectors if they so chose. All connections that received 50% or more votes from the general TIA membership would proceed to the next qualifying round to be held in February. Most members believed at least three connectors would receive 50% or more votes.
Battle lines drawn
But was a three-way contest really meant to be? Here's a step-by-step narrative of each day's proceedings, so you can see for yourself how a TIA committee meeting works.
The meeting started after lunch in a room housing more than 100 TIA members. All seats were taken, even those lining the aisles, and quarters were tight. Each of the five manufacturers made a half-hour presentation to the committee. Although most of the presentations were conducted in a business-like manner, representatives of one manufacturer should have had a flag thrown for unsportsmanlike conduct when they accused another manufacturer of producing a substandard connector. Fortunately, the offending manufacturer apologized in a letter read to the committee the following day. After all the presentations were completed, there was a short break for refreshments at about 5 p.m. Then members broke into small groups and returned to the manufacturers' hands-on demonstrations--an opportunity to the various connectors and observe their termination procedures. One manufacturer was interrupted by "TIA police," who were going around making sure that no one mentioned pricing while doing the hands-on presentation because talking price was against the rules established for competition. All judging criteria were based on the technical merits of the product and not business considerations. After thinking about pros and cons of each manufacturer's connector, the members completed the connector survey around 8 p.m. The following morning, survey results were released to the committee so members could get an overall perspective on the competition among connectors. The results showed the AMP-Siecor connector had taken the early lead. The next step was to complete the member-at-large poll. The questionnaire had to be handed in by voting TIA members at the end of the second day, so the results could be tallied and given to the committee the next morning.
Counting the casualties
Judgement Day came on the third morning. How many manufacturers would continue to the next round? That was the question on everyone's mind. But what actually happened was something no one had anticipated--the AMP-Siecor MT-RJ was the only fiber-optic connector that received enough voted to make it to the next round.
With possibly millions of dollars at stake, the other four manufacturers did not take these results very well. AMP's representatives maintained their composure during the ensuing fracas, but it was evident that the other manufacturers, apart from Siecor, were lobbying for another set of rules to allow more of them to qualify for the next round. The heated discussion went on for about 90 minutes, after the vice-chairperson of the committee reminded attendees that the same manufacturers who had made the rules now wanted to change them The voice of reason was heard when Ray Keden of ERICO, a voting committee member with no stake in the connector race, requested to see the results of the poll of members-at-large. Keden believed the committee should be able to see these results, just as election results are available in any democratic society. The results revealed the AMP-Siecor's connector had an overwhelming margin over the next connector--68% to 49%. To the other manufacturers, this margin was another unexpected shock. They had hoped for a tight race to support their argument for some bending of the rules. But this wide margin clearly indicated that the AMP-Siecor connector was the committee's overwhelming choice. AMP's battle has just begun, however. Now that the selection process has been completed, the TIA will decide at its next meeting whether to add the AMP-Siecor connector to the existing standard, get rid of the SC connector, or include both connectors in a new standard. Clearly, though, the AMP-Siecor connector should at least be added to the existing standard. The TIA committee, the general TIA membership, and the major fiber-optic connector manufacturers all recognize that the new products submitted to the competition represent significant technical improvements as a criterion for selection, it's also difficult to avoid the significant cost savings the AMP connector will offer over the SC connector in terms of labor and materials.
End-users will be waiting to see how he connector battle turns out. Now that TR-41.8.1 committee members overwhelmingly have chosen the AMP-Siecor MT-RJ connector to qualify for the following round against the SC connector, the ensuing battle will be riveting. As a consultant who represents the end user community and who has heard the TR-41.8.1 committee criticized at times for supposedly being dominated by manufacturers and having an "I-don't-care-about-the-user" attitude, it seems to me that this particular connector battle has yielded a landmark decision. We look to this committee to simplify the purchase and installation of commercial cabling systems, and its work has progressed in that direction. But here are some questions the end-user should consider while following the aftermath of its controversy:
- Will the manufacturers who were not selected comply with the agreed-upon connector standard?
- Will manufacturers try to put a kink in the process, saying there should be multiple connectors available or, better yet, that the open market should decide?
- Will manufacturers simply go their own way, saying that the SC connector never caught on when it was the standard and the current winner is likely to suffer the same fate?
The outcome of this connector war will play a significant role in what end-users believe about standards and whether this TIA standards body is concerned about those beliefs. As was the case with the SC connector some manufacturers who did not make the cut may fight this decision tooth and nail and refuse to accpet it as a standard. This attitude does not help the industry. If you believe the market should decide, consider what end-users will have to go through to install the right combination of equipment, so that numerous combinations of conversion cables are unnecessary. As of today, hubs and network interface cards for at least five different network approaches have to be reviewed. The potential complexity of this scenario makes power-sum testing look easy. And what will happen when it is time to decide on the next copper connector? Is the end-user going to decide this issue in the marketplace too?
When manufacturers want to let the market decide, they are really saying that their product did not qualify for the standard, so the next best option is simply to capture market share with a nonstandard product. Perhaps it is time that manufacturers put on their customers' hats and devise a way for everyone to win.