Building Your Skills in Home Networking
It is rare to walk into a restaurant or a store — or even someone’s home — and not be prompted on your smartphone to connect to their wireless network. Perhaps it is a sign of the times; the number of Internet-connected devices is ever expanding and for those devices to work to their full potential, they need to be backed up by a robust network.
Networking is getting a reputation for being the most important skill for a modern-day technician to have in the residential industry. It’s a fact: The residential network is rapidly becoming the backbone of virtually every low-voltage subsystem in the home. What once was used just for printer sharing and low-stakes Internet access now is handling voice, data, entertainment, surveillance, medical sensors, telepresence, system control, and more. The opportunities are really endless.
As a home technology professional, clients will rely on your skills to make systems work quickly, securely and reliably. Their family may want to stream Netflix, plan an online game with Xbox Live, and communicate on Skype video all at the same time, and it is your job to make sure these systems and applications perform for what they need. In the coming years, more consumer electronics products will be network-enabled, including washing machines, refrigerators and other appliances, increasing the need for a stable, secure and robust network that only a high-level system can provide.
On the plus side, IP is not some “double-secret” proprietary language only available to a select few special people, nor is it an ever-changing technology that is always a moving target and impossible to keep up with. Internet Protocol (IP) is a well-established and versatile language, used the same way by everyone and consistent around the world.
Don’t Make Your Clients’ Projects a ‘Learning Experience’
There are a few different ways to approach the almighty network. We asked Michael Pope, owner of Audio Video Interiors, Middleburg Heights, Ohio, how his company, which was once completely focused on security, started doing networking for its clients.
“Our best ‘learning’ experience about networks came when we installed a control system for a local sports celebrity’s manager,” Pope describes. “We were approached by a contractor who handled all of the client’s technology solutions. His stated expertise was IT systems and support. It was the same week the iPad launched and the contractor wanted all of the control interfaces to be iPads. After much debate about the reliability of Wi-Fi-only control, new technology, and having all of your technology eggs in one basket, the client still elected to use iPads only. Our mistake was relying on others to install a managed network with robust Wi-Fi. You can guess the rest of the story.
“The iPads were not reliable, the IT contractor threw us under the bus, and it took months to convince the client to allow us replace the network.
“For those just starting out, I would highly recommend working with a third-party provider. A third-party service provider can design and pre-program an enterprise-grade network capable of managing a large automation project featuring hundreds of IP devices.
As our company grew, we hired someone to handle most of our IT systems, but still utilize this third-party provider on our larger, more complex projects.
“The best advice I can give is to replace the network for any of your residential and small commercial projects. Working with consumer-grade equipment on today’s IP-intensive systems is a recipe for disaster. We routinely sell new networks for all of our connected-technology solutions,” says Pope.
Regardless of whether you are going to work with a third-party service provider, train someone on your staff, or hire in an IT specialist, you are at least going to need to know how to talk about the network and assess the current state of things in client’s homes. You should be prepared to think about the following
We asked Heather Sidorowicz, president and owner of Southtown AV, Hamburg, N.Y., about her experience selling networking and how she overcomes client objections. She shares:
“It is no easy task to ask your client to spend thousands to replace their router and properly lay out the system. How do you convince your client to pay for something they believe they are getting for free from their Internet Service Provider (ISP)?” Sidorowicz asks. “Twice now a client has accused us of ‘robbing’ them by asking them to invest in a proper network. Twice now we have had a tech onsite at the end of the job troubleshooting issues that turned out to be — you guessed it — network-related. Not setting proper expectations upfront will only hurt your own business and tie up technician hours down the line.
“Sure, they do not want to spend money on something that is, essentially, invisible. How much did they spend on their last water heater or their furnace? These things live in basements and are never seen, but they are asked to provide a service. This is what networking is. This is why I say it is the next utility of the home.
“When recently talking to a manufacturer rep, he told me to ask my clients, ‘Would you rather go a day without water or the Internet?’ Then wait and watch them contemplate before they answer. They’ll know the right answer is water, but they still struggle with the idea of not having access to the Internet for a day.
“One of the clients that claimed I was trying to ‘rob’ him has started to see what I was talking about. After failing to convince him, and multiple road calls throughout the first year, he recently sent me a message, saying, ‘I would like to look at that network quote you sent me last year again.’ To me, this says that times are beginning to shift. And now is the time for us to capitalize upon it.”
Who manages the network now? Can we install our own network or do we need to work on their existing network?
Your team will likely find out the answer to this in the discovery phase of a project — just by asking the client how they currently handle the network. As Michael Pope of Audio Video Interiors notes in the related article, “Don’t Make Your Clients’ Projects a ‘Learning Experience,’” on page xx, his company always replaces the existing network in residential applications.
What bandwidth will I need now and in the foreseeable future for my equipment needs? Will the current system handle the additional use? Just to give you some perspective on bandwidth: In order for a client to stream their favorite House of Cards episode from Netflix in 4K/UltraHD, they will need a minimum of 30 megabits per second (MBps) — and that is with no other devices utilizing the Internet. Depending on what is available through the Internet service provider, 50 MBps or even 100 MBps may be necessary depending on the number of devices that need a connection to the Internet. Again, during your discovery phase with the right questions you will understand what your clients are looking for and how they use technology to enhance their lifestyles.
Is there a managed switch that can segregate traffic from each subsystem and prioritize bandwidth requirements for essential systems? If not, can you install one? Installing a managed switch will allow you to create a VLAN (virtual local area network). Utilizing a VLAN gives you greater control over how data travels over the network and who has access to it. In addition, a managed switch allows you to prioritize LAN traffic to ensure that the most important information is getting the bandwidth it needs.
It’s not enough to just talk the talk with networking, though being able to explain it is important. You also must have the hard skills to back it up. As stated previously, IP is not a proprietary language and it is not changing. So if you are thinking of learning the network yourself or having someone on your staff learn it, the good news is that training is available.
CEDIA has created an entire pathway to learning the network (see the graphic above), outlining the courses needed to become a master of the network. Introductory courses (IP for Technicians, Networking & Cabling Infrastructure, and Wireless Network Technologies) are available online through CEDIA’s training portal. If you or someone on your staff is ready for advanced training, such as setting up a VLAN, CEDIA also offers a five-day Advanced Systems & Integration Boot Camp. You can learn more about these training options at cedia.net/training.
A Deeper Dive Into What a VLAN Can Do
This is an example of a port-based VLAN network. For simplicity’s sake, the Ethernet connections have been grouped; however, in a real installation each device’s Ethernet connection would be run individually back to the switch.
We can see that there are three separate VLANs. Only the devices within the same VLAN can communicate with each other. For example, the guests will only have Internet access and will not be able to communicate with any devices on the automation or office VLANs. Also, you’ll notice that the office VLAN has been designated as the management VLAN. This means that any configuration of the switch will need to be done from the desktop in the office.
By separating these devices we have increased network performance by reducing the number of broadcasts each device needs to process. We have increased security, as guests cannot access internal network services or the office VLAN. Network threats such as viruses and worms are contained to only the devices in the VLAN. Plus, we have grouped functional devices together in a way that we can take advantage of some network prioritization.
Making the Sale
Once you’ve learned the network and how to identify the right solutions for your client, the time has come for the sale. When asked to integrate systems that require a strong network you must be able to make the case to the consumer about why a more advanced (and more expensive) home network infrastructure is necessary instead of conventional residential options to achieve their needs.
The challenge in transitioning the client’s mindset from an over-the-counter solution to an enterprise-grade solution is that your clients likely have been told over and over again that home networking is both simple and inexpensive. Simply put, this is not the case. In order to be successful, you will need to have a comprehensive approach to successfully selling their potential client a robust wireless solution. The first and most important step is educating the client. How this is done will vary from person to person, but it must be done early in the discovery process. The long life expectancy of an enterprise-grade networking solution and its ability to take on more and more overhead is powerful when properly presented. You want the client to know that there is value built into their purchase and that their best interests are being considered along the way.
So how will your company handle the almighty network? It is definitely something to consider and a prime opportunity to assert yourself as a home technology expert. Learn more about what it will take to become a master of the network at cedia.net/training.