System Integrators Adapt For Government Clients

While the private sector lags, the public sector booms with projects
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As video and audio signals leave the analog world and slide into the digital era, systems integration companies are learning new techniques and finding new products to serve the needs of their customers. Manufacturers are also responding with new ways to simplify connections when their products get integrated into complex systems.

by Bob Kovacs

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Racks in the Library of Congress’ National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Va. This system was built by Communications Engineering Inc. Still, system integration is a tricky business. There is plenty of competition and there’s always someone at the client who thinks the project could be done more cheaply with internal labor. However, when government dollars are at play, saving money and doing the right thing can sometimes be at cross-purposes.

More competition for work is a common theme among system integration companies. San Diegobased systems integrator TV Magic works extensively in the western U.S. and Latin America, and has seen a drop in domestic U.S. business.

“The consolidation that we’re seeing in the [commercial television] industry means that work will be more difficult to come by in the next couple of years,” said Benito Behar, vice president of sales and marketing for TV Magic. “Our industry is poised for some radical changes and stiffer competition in the short- and mid-term.”

However, the government sector is not seeing the recession that has hammered commercial television operations.

Newington, Va.-based Communications Engineering Inc. (CEI) is in the Washington, D.C., metro area, which puts the company in a position to work on federal government projects. CEI just wrapped up a large television project for NASCAR in Charlotte, N.C., and has steady work for the federal government and entities such as museums.

“I think the majority of systems integrators will tell you that 2009 was a difficult year,” said Larry Brody, president and CEO of CEI. “Basically, the entire industry stopped spending money and a lot of projects were delayed.

“[However], CEI never had that problem—we were extremely fortunate to have some very solid clients and projects that carried us through 2009,” Brody said. “We actually had a record year in 2009 and are on our way to having another record year in 2010.”

COMMAND AND CONTROL

Among government clients, the need to improve security has driven the construction of many command and control facilities. Coupled with a minor revolution that has thrown out heavy, bulky and powerhungry CRT displays and replaced them with larger, lighter and slimmer LCD screens (See “Last Lone Wolf CRT Rebuilder Fades to Black,” page 20), large monitor walls are now common in the public sector.

“Each client is different based on its particular needs and budgets,” said Frank Giliotti, vice president of technical services for CEI. “What we see requested most often are LCD flat panels and LED displays, which are new to this application but more consumer-oriented. Military command centers and network operations centers also frequently require multi-monitor displays.”

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Belden’s new 179DT digital video cables are rated for signals to 4.5 GHz for 3G (1080p/60 Hz) operation. Projection systems are also common for these applications. CEI favors Christie Digital projectors and Sharp LCD flat-screen displays for monitor walls and presentation spaces.

Giliotti said that digital signal transport has mostly replaced analog for displays.

“HDMI is the way to go now for interconnecting gear and many manufacturers use it for everything,” he said. “Also, vendors like Extron have extenders for connecting equipment over longer distances, which eliminates a previous challenge of using HDMI.”

Teleconferencing is another popular application among government clients and CEI generally installs codecs from Polycom and Tandberg. Giliotti said that many teleconference systems that CEI installs include the ability for an operator to control the equipment. The company most often uses control systems from AMX, Crestron and Extron.

Ross Jerozal, principal consultant for San Francisco-based audiovisual consultant Charles M. Salter Associates, has worked on a range of presentation systems for a variety of clients. These include a new library in Walnut Creek as well as the Veterans Administration’s Palo Alto Polytrauma and Blind Rehabilitation Center, both in California.

When planning a project for his clients, Jerozal often recommends several products from Atlona.

“Atlona continues to bring new and creative products to the market at very reasonable prices,” Jerozal said. “I currently use their UTP extender products the most, as well as their HDMI scaler, which is a great adaptive scaler to use right before a videoconference codec input [that might have] more limited resolution options than the main room display, for instance. I also really like their new test LCD monitor, which is perfect for digital signal testing in the field.”

THE RIGHT CABLE

Every video project needs cabling and there are several companies that make the cable used by integrators, such as Belden, Gepco, Clark Wire and West Penn. Since a large part of any integration project is installing, lacing and connectorizing cables, getting the right cable for the job can save time and aggravation— even after it’s been installed.

“There is nothing more valuable here than consistency,” said Steve Lampen, multimedia technology manager and product line manager at Belden Cable. “When cable is the same size, then connectors consistently fit correctly and don’t fall off. Consistency in performance means that designers and installers worry less about our products and can concentrate their energy on the big-ticket, cuttingedge technology products.”

To simplify installation and improve performance, Belden can supply certain types of complete cable assemblies.

“We’ve been looking at pre-assembled products and, on the data side, we now offer ‘pre-terminated‚’ cables,” Lampen said. “This is especially valuable with 10GbaseT networks, which are difficult to install with consistent performance.”

Integrators are not only responsible for installing and connecting equipment; most also take pride in making the system look good. In addition to using off-the-shelf racks and consoles from companies such as Winsted, Middle Atlantic, Forecast and TBC, most systems integrators can design and supply custom consoles, cabinets and even racks. A few integrators even have their own cabinet shops to create just about any technical furniture.

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Another service that many systems integrators provide is to work with architects and builders to ensure that the necessary infrastructure exists in the building to support the technical systems. The integrator can identify what size conduit is needed, where the conduit should go, HVAC requirements, electrical service and other details that make the difference between a safe and convenient system, and one that is a chore to use.

Finally, there is something to be said for having a single point of contact for any problems that may arise with a new television or audiovisual system. Since a systems integrator provides all the products and performs the installation, it is responsible for making the system work up to its specifications. This responsibility is one of the main reasons why organizations choose systems integrators even when in-house engineering staff could reasonably tackle the project.

The past couple of years have been tough on many systems integrators, but a little less hard on those companies that provide services to government organizations. Still, many systems integrators are hungry for work, so use that leverage to negotiate the best terms—from price to completion date.

Bob Kovacs can be reached atbob@bobkovacs.com.

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