Environmental challenges lead to fiber LAN at historical site

May 1, 1999

Environmental challenges lead to fiber LAN at historical site


Fiber was the medium of choice when the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy (WPC) replaced an existing copper infrastructure with a new intrabuilding local area network (LAN) at its Fallingwater location at Mill Run, PA. A new telephone wide area network link with Pittsburgh has also benefited both visitors to the site and the Fallingwater staff.

Fallingwater is one of architect Frank Lloyd Wright`s most acclaimed works and a modern example of his concept of organic architecture. Designed in 1935 and constructed from 1936 to 1938, it is the only Wright house open to the public with its setting, furnishing, and artwork intact. The national historic landmark attracts more than 180,000 visitors annually.

Fiber-optic proponents pushing fiber into the premises network space are quick to point out its advantages, such as faster speeds, greater distance capabilities, ease of access to fiber trunks, and enormous capacities. Yet, the unique challenges Fallingwater`s LAN posed for Clayton Walker, director of information technology at the WPC, led him to fiber for other reasons.

"You really need to see the geology and terrain to appreciate what we were up against," says Walker. "Our copper phone system, for example, would experience major problems every time it rained or the humidity rose to a certain level. Since we put the fiber-optic network in, we`ve yet to have a problem with the LAN at Fallingwater."

Although less of a factor than terrain, distance requirements also contributed to the decision to deploy fiber. For example, the nine-building LAN includes cable runs of up to 2200 ft. Although all the fiber is underground, aerial cable was at least considered at one time according to an early sketch of the LAN backbone. About 10,000 ft of fiber-optic cable was installed to complete the project.

The project began in October 1997, when the conservancy hired consultant Paul J. Miles, a senior project engineer associated with Bell Atlantic Network Integration, a subsidiary of Bell Atlantic. Miles acted as a consultant to the WPC for designing the project and putting it out for bid. Baker Communications, based in Castle Shannon, PA, won the bid to install the network.

The fiber cable selected was a small-diameter, outside-plant armored multimode cable manufactured by Berk-Tek, an Alcatel company. The cable`s small diameter was essential because the installers were forbidden to bore holes in the historic building. The cable`s armor provided the gopher protection and water-blocking characteristics necessary to operate within a landmark that will remain in its natural state.

The system Walker envisioned was one that could move large amounts of data between Fallingwater and Pittsburgh, about 70 mi apart, as well as among the various buildings at both sites. The existing link between Pittsburgh and Fallingwater is also a fiber-optic connection. Although there may be some copper intermingled at some points, all the main substations are on a fiber-optic trunk. The trunk is accessed for both voice and data transmissions, using voice over Internet protocol (IP).

"We`ve bridged out four channels of our T1 line to use for voice traffic," says Walker. "The remainder is being used not only for data, but video as well. We`re doing videoconferencing between both locations."

Cost was less of an issue, even though the cost of electronics for fiber is normally higher than those used in copper architectures. Although Walker admits the initial investment in capital was higher for fiber, in terms of the cost savings attained to date, the system has already paid for itself.

"The elimination of travel costs alone between Fallingwater and Pittsburgh for conferences and meetings is probably a five-figure sum per year," says Walker. "Using voice over IP has also reduced our long-distance phone rates tremendously, because we`re not dialing direct--we`re dialing across our own T1 line. We can also lease our space at Fallingwater to outside agencies, providing them with a server network to conduct seminars or training by plugging right into our network. So we`ve gained a lot in terms of reciprocal costs."

The fiber network also delivers several tourism-related advantages. For example, the manual cash register in the gift shop has been replaced by an automated sales and inventory system. Now all sales information is transferred directly to the accounting department in Pittsburgh via the LAN.

A kiosk system is also being installed in the visitors` pavilion that will interconnect with an Intranet, providing visitors with a "virtual tour" online as they await the actual tour. Information on Fallingwater, the WPC, and some of the 200,000 acres of natural beauty can be accessed via the kiosk system. Admissions processing will also be improved through the use of a new bar-code system.

"I looked at three non-copper technologies before making the final decision to go with a fiber network," recalls Walker. "One was fiber, another was radio, and the third was some kind of laser technology. Neither the radio nor laser solution met the criteria we put forth. With Fallingwater`s construction of concrete, granite, and reinforced steel, the direct line-of-sight needed for radio and lasers couldn`t be achieved. There`s also a lot of fog throughout the year. So I made the decision right off the bat that fiber would be the optimal way to do this whole project."

Projects like Fallingwater may open new avenues for fiber optics. Fiber could become the communications transmission medium of choice when network designers face obstacles such as harsh physical environments, inclement weather and, yes, even gopher problems. And with the cost of optoelectronics becoming more comparable with that of their copper-based competitors, users such as those at Fallingwater may discover yet another niche where fiber might prove the best solution. q

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