Un-Conventional Thinking: Bally's Provides Fiber to Meetings

Las Vegas isn't all gambling, showgirls and Sigfried and Roy. It's become one of the nation's hot spots for conventions and trade shows. And competition for business is fierce. Bally's has met the challenge by rewiring their facilites with fiber optic cabling direct to floor pockets in convention and meeting rooms, making it possible to create networks that handle data, voice, video, audio and other media at any desired speed throughout its far-flung meeting areas.

Bally’s Las Vegas has provided dramatic improvements in on-site networking capabilities by becoming the first hotel on the strip to provide fiber optic cabling direct to floor pockets in convention and meeting rooms. This makes it possible for the hotel to construct in minutes impromptu networks that handle data, voice, video, audio and other media at any desired speed throughout its far-flung meeting areas.

For example, a company holding a meeting will be able to run a PowerPoint and video presentation in the hotel’s Grand Ballroom, and have it simultaneously presented to an overflow crowd gathered on the 26th floor. This would be impossible with conventional copper networks due to speed and distance limitations. Michael Benedetti, President of Spaghetti Western in Las Vegas, the company that designed the fiber network, as well as the entire convention facility’s multi-million dollar upgrade, says that "the cost of connecting the meeting facilities of the hotel using 3M’s new Volition fiber optic cabling system was, remarkably, about the same as an equivalent copper installation."

Located in the heart of the Las Vegas Strip, Bally’s has 2,814 guest rooms and 225 suites. The hotel ranks as one of the foremost convention centers in the country with over 165,000 square feet of meeting space. The hotel’s meeting facilities are divided between the casino level, the South Tower and the 26th floor.

On the casino level, there are a total of 23 meeting and convention rooms with a total area of 120,000 square feet. The largest is the Grand Ballroom, a 50,000 square foot room that accommodates 3,340 attendees in a banquet setup style. Assuming 8-foot by 10-foot booths, the main floor will hold about 900 exhibits. The South Tower, which consists of the Las Vegas Ballroom and the Pacific Ballroom, boasts over 26,000 square feet. An additional 30,000 square feet of meeting facilities is located on the 26th floor.

Challenges in Providing Networking for Meetings

Benedetti is very familiar with the challenges involved in providing networking facilities to companies holding events through his eight years as Chief Audio Engineer at Bally’s. "When I started in this job, presentations were given on slide projectors, and the most important thing to the customer was a sound system that could be heard throughout the ballroom," Benedetti states. "Well, those days are long gone."

"Today, many of the hotel’s more sophisticated guests ask us to assemble high-speed networks to handle presentations and data transmissions," he says. "They may need to, for example, deliver streaming video to desktop machines located all over the building, or provide high-speed Internet connections direct to desktops. Because each meeting or exhibition has a different floor plan and different networking requirements, at first it was pretty difficult to imagine how the hotel would be able to satisfy their needs.

"Up to this point, every hotel on the strip had made do with copper cabling," Benedetti continues. "But, it was apparent to me, in eight years of working with it, that copper has some major disadvantages in servicing a major convention facility. First of all, there’s the difficulty that ANSI standards limit copper cabling to 100 meters for cross-connects. That creates a major problem in most convention facilities, because by the time you get from the floor pocket to the master control you are way over the limit.

"In some applications, it’s possible to limp, by putting repeaters all over the place," he explains. "But that would have been difficult and expensive here because, particularly in the long run from the casino floor to the 26th floor, the closets just don’t exist. They would have had to be built from scratch, which would have been expensive, and they also would have taken up valuable space."

Copper’s Obsolescence Problem

"Another concern that I had about using copper at Bally’s," Benedetti recalls, "was that I thought it would have to be torn out and replaced with fiber before very long. There’s only so much stuff that you can shove down a Cat 5 copper cable. Now the industry has come up with Cat 5e, Cat 6 and Cat 7 cable, but they provide incremental improvements that haven’t been fully verified. Many of Bally’s guests want 100 Megabits now, and will soon be asking for Gigabit and even 10 Gigabit transmission speeds. If we had installed copper, this would have meant rewiring at least once, and maybe twice. For all these reasons, I wanted to install fiber direct to every floor pocket in all of the meeting areas in the hotel, but I didn’t think my budget would allow it."

While looking for regular Cat 5 copper cabling, Benedetti talked to David King at Anicom, a Las Vegas networking distributor. "When I told [David] about my problems in handling the long runs in the hotel with copper, he suggested that I consider the Volition Network Solution from 3M. Dean Dahlberg from 3M was then brought onboard for the design project. They said that this fiber solution could compete with the cost of copper, both from an equipment purchase and from an installation standpoint. They reviewed my initial Cat 5 design, which had repeaters all over the place. They helped me convert the design over to fiber, which greatly simplified it, because fiber is rated at over 300 meters, three times the distance of copper. The new design eliminated the need for repeaters and adding closets."

The Secret of Low-Cost Fiber Installation

"The price of the cable and connectors turned out to be only about 20 percent higher than copper," calculates Benedetti. "When I figured in the savings from eliminating the repeaters, it was a wash. I realized that fiber would provide the assurance of being able to handle all of the data, audio, and video needs of the hotel for the foreseeable future. Plus, I liked the fact that the entire system, cable, connectors, patch cord, media converter, patch panels, outlets and walls adapters, switches, tools and test equipment came from 3M, so I would know exactly where to point my finger if I had a problem. I made the decision on the spot to convert my design to Volition fiber."

The Volition system’s VF-45 connector is a two-part interconnect consisting of a plug and socket that has been designed to have the same size, footprint, and look and feel of the familiar RJ-45 type modular telephone jack. The molded plastic construction of the plug and socket provides a low-cost, higher-density alternative to traditional ferruled fiber optic connectors. The V-groove technology used in the VF-45 connector replaces the costly and complex ferrules used in traditional SC fiber optic connectors. The interconnect system is full duplex, allowing two simultaneous fiber interfaces. The simple mechanical connection formed with the V-grooves can be installed much more easily and quickly than traditional ferruled fiber optic connectors -- requiring only two minutes instead of 10 to 15 minutes for a duplex connection -- and the components are approximately one-seventh the cost.

The VF-45 initiative breaks with the tradition of fiber being limited to high-end networks by providing an affordable, reliable, easy to install solution that does not sacrifice an iota of performance. Unlike previous fiber connector technology, such as SC and SL, VF-45 was designed specifically with end user needs in mind. The result is that costs have fallen dramatically.

For passive fiber components, such as patch cables, wall jacks and patch cords, the cost per station has fallen to about $60 per user, while network interface cards have dropped to about $100. The cost of fiber has thus fallen from a premium of three to seven times as much as copper cabling to a current premium of 0 percent to 30 percent. The entry of the Taiwanese networking industry into this market can only improve this equation.

Even in situations where fiber still commands a premium over copper, it presents a value proposition that’s hard to ignore. Multimode fiber supports 50 times the bandwidth of the best Category 5 cabling. This guarantees support for future high-bandwidth applications that would otherwise require cabling upgrades to operate with full functionality. By contrast, existing copper standards will most likely require replacement within five years in order to support these new applications. The perception that fiber is difficult to work with is also fading away. The VF-45 connector is the same size as a conventional RJ-45 and can be terminated in the same or less time.

In addition, fiber reaches five times the distance of Category 5 cabling, making it possible to dramatically cut local area network ownership costs by using centralized cabling architecture. By extending cabling from the workstation to a centralized cross-connect, many costs associated with distributing full-size telecommunications closets throughout a building can be eliminated. A comparison of cabling costs using centralized cabling versus distributed cabling for a three-story, 60,000 square feet building results in a cost savings of more than $172,000 in passive equipment and environmental control costs savings.

A key factor driving the movement towards VF-45 is the fact that a complete infrastructure is now in place. 10Base-FL, 100Base-FX and both multimode and single mode Gigabit Ethernet products are all shipping. Complete end-to-end solutions include cable, outlet products, test equipment and reference cables, patch panels, patch cords, sockets, tools, NICs, switches and media converters. And, more than 50 manufacturers around the world now provide equipment based on the VF-45 standard.

VF-45 is an open standard being licensed to industry to assure ubiquitous adoption. The VF-45 interconnect is the only small form factor design to receive application standards body endorsement with its approval by the Fibre Channel Association. It was the first small form factor design to receive the ANSI/ TIA/EIA 604-7 fiber optic connector intermateability standard earlier this year. The VF-45 design is also at the forefront of international standardization with recent acceptance into the Program of Work under IEC 86B.

Configuring Impromptu Networks

"In order to provide the optimum flexibility, the entire network is configured as a local area network," describes Benedetti. "Through the patch panels, the network can be reconfigured in minutes to create impromptu LANs that can handle any client’s needs. I specified 10 Megabit and 100 Megabit switches to keep the cost down. But, the speed of the network can easily be upgraded to the 10 Gigabit level simply by changing out the switches. In the grand ballroom, for example, I located 40 access panels with recessed floor pockets all around the room. These pockets contain audio, video, data and phone connections. The jacks route upstairs to a fiber optic jack field in the main control room. If we need to connect pocket 1 to pocket 13, we simply run a fiber optic patch cord from the connection from pocket 1, patch into a 10 Megabit or 100 Megabit switch, then come out of that switch with another patch cord to pocket 13. The result is a fiber optic highway between pocket 1 and 13 at whatever speed the client needs."

"The fiber optic cable can handle data, audio, video and even RS-232 control signals," Benedetti continues. "To make an audio connection, I would simply put media converters in the line between the floor pockets and the switch. To route audio over the network, I’m using the Rave System from QSC Audio, which routes audio data via standard Fast Ethernet hardware and cabling. This approach provides the flexibility to create highly complex audio distribution systems similar to that used at the Super Bowl or to simply link together minimal digital or analog audio components. I can run over up to 64 audio channels on a single fiber connection and routing over Ethernet eliminates ground loop problems. I’m currently specifying similar media converters, which are just reaching the market for video and control signals."

The network is currently up and running in the Grand Ballroom and Events Center and has met all of Bally’s client’s expectations. Construction of phase two, which will include the Palace Room and Skyview complexes on the 26th floor, is now underway. Those areas will contain similar systems and will also link to the third floor master control, making it possible to create hotel-wide networks in minutes. Bally’s networking facilities are the envy of its competitors on the strip, and throughout the country. It now has a clear advantage in the highly competitive Las Vegas convention business.

About the Author: Jerry Fireman is President an founder of Structured Information (Birmingham, Mich.), and has authored over 6,000 articles for the IT industry. He can be reached at jerry_fireman@strucinfo.com.