Before I turn my attention to a series of posts which will focus on design and construction details at the Byrne residence as we approach the 15th anniversary of its completion, I thought a brief essay on how we are integrating technologies likely to become ubiquitous during the 21st century into a home completed toward the end of the 20th century might be of interest.

First, a few words on several elements which were mentioned in the requirements letter Bill and Carol Byrne wrote in December of 1993. While pre-wiring to support both an alarm system and an intercom system were both referenced in that document, neither were realized in the final design, nor were they incorporated during construction. However, there were ample provisions, (in terms of pre-wiring), for television and telephone connectivity throughout the Byrne residence via coaxial cable and “twisted pair” copper wiring, (e.g. the Living Room, Kitchen, Office, etc.). Happily, with the advent of various wireless-based solutions, retrofitting conveniences like an alarm system or whole-house entertainment at the Byrne residence was – and still is – quite feasible.

There were challenges we faced with being able to take full advantage of some of today’s technologies based on the lack of infrastructure in this particular development. For example, there wasn’t any coaxial cabling, (for cable television service), buried when the entire development was being trenched in the early 1990’s. Happily, there was copper wiring buried within the utility easement adjoining each lot intended for basic telephone service, but this development is located well beyond the commonly-accepted distance limitations for DSL, (a.k.a. digital subscriber line). In short, the two most prevalent forms of high-speed Internet connectivity are not even remotely feasible at the Byrne residence! Suffice it to say, satellite-based solutions, (e.g. DISH Network, DirecTV, etc.), weren’t attractive because the upload, (and potentially even download), speeds would be entirely too slow to meet our needs.

One potential solution has gained traction in recent years – wireless Internet cards. This technology blends the ease of use associated with 802.11-based wireless local area network standards and the relative ubiquity of cellular telephone network connectivity into a single device. In fact, it was precisely this type of technology Bill and Carol Byrne relied upon for Internet connectivity for several years prior to selling their home to us. While we chose to use this same technology when we first purchased the Byrne residence from Bill and Carol, it quickly became apparent I was going to have to come up with an alternative – and more permanent – solution for accessing the Internet!

Despite the reliability of our wireless Internet card-based solution being very good, the upload and download speeds were slower than what we could reasonably expect to get with either a cable modem or DSL modem, (had either of those options been available to us), and we needed the fastest connection we could get! I was also concerned about an emerging trend among wireless service providers to place limits on the aggregate amount of bandwidth an individual subscriber could consume in a given month. Given my desire to install quite a few bandwidth-consuming devices at the Byrne residence over time, the prospects of receiving a large bill every month, or having to carefully manage bandwidth consumption day in and day out wasn’t very attractive…

So, with all of these constraints, what were our options? How were we going to get high-speed Internet connectivity to the Byrne residence? The answer came in the form of an entirely-serendipitous meeting with our neighbors, Al and Ann Austin a little less than a year ago… Martha and I were visiting with the Austin’s for the first time – we learned about their family’s history in Arizona, Al’s career as a veterinarian, Ann’s career as an expert trainer of animals of many types, including how to train your dog to avoid rattlesnakes and what had attracted the two of them to the immediate area in north Scottsdale. We learned the Austin’s had purchased two lots with the intent of incorporating the remaining structures of the Carefree Ranch into a larger complex of buildings meant to house their growing collection of animals, accommodate Al’s practice and provide facilities for Ann’s training needs. Needless to say, Martha and I were completely enthralled!

At some point during the conversation, I recall grumbling to Al about Internet connectivity, at which point Al pointed up toward the roof and said “David, you need to call Don Marshall and have him install one of these! We’ve had high-speed Internet for a while now, and it works great!” I glanced up toward the peak of the gable and saw a short PVC “mast” attached to the side of the house with a small, white, rectangle strapped to the top of the mast. This object had a single cable emerging from the bottom, bending toward the board and batten sheathing on their house and entered the structure through a tiny hole sealed up against the elements. While I was studying all of this carefully, Al offered to go retrieve Don’s card and make a copy for me.

Later that afternoon, I called Sonoran Networks, left a message and within an hour or so, I heard back from Don. He explained his company’s service was specifically-targeted at developments like ours – and there are several developments in the immediate area suffering from a similar lack of infrastructure!  He uses so-called “line-of-sight” microwave radios, (sometimes referred to as “fixed wireless Internet service”), to connect a residence to the Internet. It’s a wireless distribution system installed in fixed locations, such as an office building or a residence, as opposed to a mobile wireless system, (i.e. the type used with cellular telephones).

The point-to-point signal transmissions occur through the air using a ground-based microwave radio, (the white rectangle), rather than through a telephone phone line or a coaxial cable connection. In short, this was an ideal solution for the Byrne residence! We scheduled the installation for a Saturday morning a few weeks later, and I began thinking about how I was going to route the twisted pair cable from the radio somewhere up on the roof down into the house…

These first two photographs are of the microwave radio itself, mounted on a short PVC mast giving the reader some idea of how small it is! The enclosure of the radio is approximately 7 inches in length, 3 inches wide and 3/4 of an inch thick. The twisted pair cable is sheathed in an insulating jacket formulated to withstand ultraviolet rays, a particular concern in the harsh desert sunlight. After exiting the radio enclosure at the bottom, it loops up toward the top of the PVC mast, then feeds down through the mast and exits at the bottom – a detail the reader can study in another photograph a bit further on in the post.

This second pair of photographs, (below), depict the final installation on the roof of the Byrne residence.  The observant reader might detect a slight difference between the upper image and the lower image – it’s the length of the PVC mast, (I chose to shorten the PVC mast to make the radio less apparent from the street, hence the difference).  I routed the galvanized metal conduit down along the raised rib of one of the corrugated steel panels on the roof just to the left of the radio mast, made a 90 degree bend immediately beneath the skylight, used another piece of conduit to route the twisted pair cable over to the raised rib just to the left of the range hood exhaust vent, with a final 90 degree bend and 4 inch segment terminating next to the vent itself.  Any rainwater that happens to find the open end of the conduit right below the mast will drain out the other end of the conduit due to the slope of the roof, (north to south and west to east), and the slight downward tilt of that final piece of conduit just to the left of the range hood exhaust vent.

The next two photographs illustrate where the twisted pair cable exits the mast below the radio and enters the conduit, as well as the twisted pair exiting the conduit at the other end, then looping up and over into the range hood exhaust vent opening cut into the roof, where the twisted pair cable drops down into the crawl space immediately above the Pantry.  Note the simple “ballast” used to steady the mast without being attached to the roof! It’s a solid piece of cast concrete weighing more than enough to keep the radio and mast from being blown over in heavy winds.  I can certainly attest to how effective the ballast is too – wind gusts of 40, 50, even 60 miles an hour are routinely experienced at the Byrne residence.

A brief aside – the structural engineering team used by Will Bruder specified 70 miles per hour as the upper limit for the calculations used when determining wind loading on the exterior surfaces at the Byrne residence.

Despite being up on the roof at least six times in the past nine months to conduct cursory visual inspections, I haven’t seen any signs of movement whatsoever, (and yes, there have been several severe storms in the immediate area this year).

The duct leading up from the range hood exhaust vent above the cooktop is double-walled, i.e. there is an inner and outer cylinder of metal with a 1 inch air gap between them, so running the cable down along the side of this duct made sense, since the surface of the outer cylinder doesn’t get warm to the touch. In effect, I was able to take advantage of an existing void cut into the roof, (for the range hood exhaust vent), making this a very tidy retrofit, (requiring absolutely no holes)!

The last two photographs, (below), are of the radio taken from the roof over the Guest Bedroom, looking south, upward toward the top of largest of the CMU walls which runs the length of the house, (from east to west). The upper image was taken right after the installation was completed, while the lower image was taken after I’d replaced the PVC mast with a shorter one. The radio is barely visible from the street, since it peeks up over the CMU wall only about 12 inches or so, yet it has an unobstructed, (a.k.a. “line of sight”), view of the antenna managed by Sonoran Networks located nearby.

…and how is the performance? In a word, fantastic! Both upload and download speeds are “capped” by Sonoran Networks so they can deliver consistent performance levels for all of their customers, but the limits are sufficiently high to permit uninterrupted streaming of video content from services like Amazon, Apple, HBO GO, Hulu, Microsoft (via Xbox), Netflix, Roku, etc. The reliability has been great too – no interruptions in service so far!

I only wish the same could be said for our basic telephone service… 😦

As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, twisted pair copper cabling was buried when the development was established well over 20 years ago, and the extreme conditions in the desert have certainly taken their toll on this important infrastructure over the past two decades. It’s important for the reader to understand the company you choose for telephone service isn’t necessarily the company responsible for maintaining – or repairing – the physical infrastructure, (I’m now talking about the wiring buried out at the street), in your neighborhood. This highly-ineffective division of labor is what we’ve had to contend with for well over a year, as the saga of our land line has played out among no less than four different companies, (all claiming to have one responsibility or another related to our telephone service).

First, a bit of history – I chose AT&T as our telephone service provider for a single land line we wanted to activate at the Byrne residence in the spring of 2010, shortly after we signed the sales contract. The activation was completed without incident, done precisely on the day it was scheduled and for a number of months we had flawless telephone service. Well, our luck seems to have run out when, upon arriving at the Byrne residence for one of our long-awaited visits in 2011, I discovered we had no dial tone. All I heard was static when I activated the handset to make a call – clearly something wasn’t working the way it should!

Now I can get to the point of the title for this post. CenturyLink is responsible for the physical wiring – what I’ve referred to as infrastructure above – in our development. When I called AT&T to report our first interruption in service, it was personnel from CenturyLink who made the physical repair. Since the first signs of trouble in the fall of 2011, we have had at least two more incidents of a similar nature – no dial tone, just irritating static on the line, (each of which took one, or more, days to resolve after I contacted AT&T). The most distressing aspect of this now nearly 15 month long ordeal is how the so-called “restoration of service” was achieved – the physical cable connecting the Byrne residence to the global telephone network is a crudely-spliced length of insulated wire snaking across the desert between two junction boxes almost 1/4 of a mile apart! The following three photographs, (below), illustrate my point:

Despite numerous calls to both AT&T and to CenturyLink, multiple claims by two different companies subcontracting their services to CenturyLink, both stating they have visited the site to complete trenching for a permanent repair and, as I said earlier, two more outages – both of which were repaired by CenturyLink repair personnel – the so-called “temporary” line is still snaking through the desert across the street from the Byrne residence, just as it has been for well over a year!

So where am I headed with this lengthy tirade? Well, if all goes according to plan, we will be installing a “voice over IP”, or VoIP-based telephone system when we return to the Byrne residence this month. We will eliminate the need for a so-called “land line” altogether at the Byrne residence and, as a result, we will be truly “CenturyLink-less”!

January 2013 Update

Not too terribly long after I wrote this original post, we had yet another interruption in service, (it was in mid-December 2012). To be clear, the AT&T repair personnel I’ve spoken with over the past 18 months have been very sincere when expressing their desire to resolve my issue, but the repair efforts have never resulted in a permanent solution – until now.

Shortly after explaining to the AT&T customer service representative I was once again calling to report an inoperative telephone line, and recounting all of the previous outages and finally intimating I would soon be canceling our service, I received a call from an AT&T supervisor who assured me they were going to track my repair order daily until a permanent solution was in place.

Within weeks, repair trucks were spotted at the Byrne residence, the technicians quickly diagnosed the root cause, trenched, spliced and reburied the cable. The temporary line snaking across the desert was removed, and I’m happy to report we have experienced no interruptions in service since then! While I envision a VoIP-based telephone system eventually being installed at the Byrne residence, I’m less inclined to aggressively pursue implementing one – we will remain “CenturyLink-ed” for the foreseeable future…

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