Electronic communication is here to stay, but reliability and cost issues continue to plague jobsite managers when it comes to high-speed or broadband access. Many are still shopping around for the best trade-off in the volatile market, while looking for realistic solutions for their project Website delivery systems.

TRAILER TALK More construction sites are being wired for Internet project collaboration.(Photo courtesy of Columbia Construction)

Broadband carriers are in demand these days, with more contractors communicating via e-mail and more project Websites moving documents electronically. Keeping project information in an electronic environment allows users to better maintain an independent and easily verifiable audit trail and provides real-time information to all parties. Dial-up modems may be OK for occasional e-mails, but some think their slow speeds, measured in bits per second (bps), make it tough to download drawings or process requests for information.

Project Websites are furnished by what is known in the acronym-rich industry as application service providers (ASP). Meridian Project Systems, Folsom, Calif., developed an ASP known as ProjectTalk. "The system can provide a project-specific homepage and create and manage documents," says Marc A. Krichman, Meridian product marketing manager. "Generally, our connectivity guidelines provide for one high-speed and one low-speed connection, but we think everyone should operate at 128 kbps. More is great, less is still effective." Members of the construction team can connect at different speeds and with different systems. "The real issue is just being able to access the database," he says.

NEED FOR SPEED. But speed is becoming an important issue. The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband as high-speed service over 200 kbps in at least one direction. Essentially there are several venues for broadband Internet access, either using digital subscriber lines (DSL), integrated services digital network lines (ISDN), cable modem, T1 or T3 leased lines, or wireless.

One firm that has experimented with the gamut of remote communication systems over the last decade is Pepper Construction Co., a Chicago building contractor. "We've heard so many big things about broadband capabilities over the last nine months that we finally got involved with DSL carriers, particularly in Texas," says Howie Piersma, Pepper information systems director. "We have been using point-to-point leased lines [ISDN or T1] between headquarters and jobsites, but we're excited about broadband because it promises to be less expensive, quicker to implement and faster in moving data."

DSL costs Pepper about $150 a month, about the same as ISDN. But T1 costs about three times more, not even counting installation fees and up-front expenses for routers.

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Piersma also cautions that service connections are still a problem. "There are tons of blackout zones in the U.S. and that even includes wireless and satellite, which you think should be available everywhere," he says.

Satellite operations also are limited by too few installation technicians and by government rules controlling conflicting operations between line-of-sight wireless towers and satellite orbits. "We would like a standard solution but because of telecomm industry chaos, we have to deliver on a case-by-case basis," says Piersma. He notes that the firm is now using a "more sophisticated point—to-point technology known as virtual private networking that uses the Internet to send encrypted data."

For Kristine K. Fallon, owner of Kristine Fallon Associates, a Chicago technology consultant, cost and reliability issues are pointing to satellite use. Her firm is part of a team implementing a Web-based program management system for a large multisite capital program. "Everyone on the team should be participating on the project Website," she says. "We need broadband to share graphic information quickly and accurately."

Field personnel frequently request information and critical documents. High-speed output devices are particularly necessary to circulate shop drawings. The satellite "only costs a couple of hundred dollars to set up but you do need a clear line of sight to the southern sky, so it probably wouldn't work in the canyons of New York City," says Fallon.

A satellite operates at about 400 kbps, much faster than dial-up modems that are up to 56 kbps, but much slower than DSL at 768 kbps or a T1 line at 1.5 million bps. Satellite use also reduces concerns about reliability issues, commercial restrictions or high costs, says Fallon. She also points to cable modem as another option, with speeds ranging from 500 kbps to 1.5 mbps. But whatever system is used, Fallon recommends always having a dial-up backup to your high-speed line. "If the broadband stops working or goes out of business you can always limp through with dial-up," she says.

DSLs have been in the news lately with the sudden disappearance of San Francisco-based NorthPoint Communications Group Inc., which operated in about 100 U.S. cities and whose closing left many broadband customers stranded and clamoring for backup service. Ironically Fallon's firm was among the victims and is still scrambling two months later to find a replacement.

HACKING IN. Security is another concern, particularly with cable modems. "It's the least secure and you need a firewall because you don't know how many subscribers are hooked up," says Fallon. While she admits that construction information security is not on the same level as banks, more should be done to protect data. For any broadband system, firewalls are important. Dial-ups are only in use when users makes a connection. Broadband systems are always on and can be hacked.

One mid-sized builder's enthusiasm for project Websites has been tempered by experience. "Initially, I was very excited although apprehensive about using an ASP," says Jonathan G. Burt, project manager at Columbia Construction Co., North Reading, Mass. "But after four months, I'm not as enthusiastic. I don't see storing information as a benefit."

Columbia's project trailer on a $7-million bank construction job in Peabody, Mass., is in a DSL blackout zone, so workers there have to use a dial-up modem to communicate with the architect, engineers and owner. "We use it to convey photo documentation and daily reports," says Burt. "Drawings are loaded and viewed and downloaded, but we had problems initially with staff unfamiliarity with the process."

SPEED Fallon is studying satellite use as a new alternative. (Photo courtesy of Kristine Fallon Associates)

Columbia has been waiting months for DSL installation. "It takes time, and sometimes the project can be over before we get the line," says Joshua J. Folsom, information technology director. He says the firm has used DSL on other jobs without problems and has also experimented with a wireless system at headquarters with limited success. "There are still blackout areas between forms of broadband. You can get DSL in one area and only cable in another," says Folsom.

This limited use has convinced the construction team that relationships with the ASP are more important than the type of access itself. "The ASP worked with us directly to address our concerns on forms and staff training," says Folsom. "But if we can't get broadband we use dial-up, which works well with the ASP. Most venders realize customers can't get broadband so they build their product to work well without it."

Current telecomm problems are creating new entrepreneurial opportunities. These include development of third generation wireless technology that will support workers moving data in their own cars. "The trend is toward advanced terrestrial networks such as cell phones or wireless devices that can move data at up to 144 kbps for mobile and 2 mbps in a stationary location," says Bill Belt, director of wireless communications for the Telecommunications Industry Association, Arlington, Va. While there is no third generation system operating, "standards are written and licenses have been authorized in Europe and Asia," he says.

U.S. users await developments. "Our mobile road warriors are growing in number and we need more capability to connect with them," Piersma says. "But I won't hold my breath waiting for it."