When writer Robert Hodierne rented his new two-bedroom apartment at Arlington Courthouse Place, he wasn't thinking about such things as Internet access or how fast he'd need to find research material.
Because he was used to being in an office and had worked at home only a short time, Hodierne hadn't had to consider those kinds of things before.
But he was lucky.
Charles E. Smith Residential Realty Inc., the company that owns his building, had already done the thinking. In an effort to stay competitive, the Arlington-based apartment developer and owner made sure it could offer increasingly tech-savvy and work-at-home tenants the latest in high-speed Internet access at Arlington Courthouse Place, the company's newest building.
Hodierne was happy to find that although he only has one telephone line, he can talk on the phone while he surfs the Internet with a technology that uses different frequencies of a telephone line. And the speed with which he can get on the Internet reminds him of his office days.
Builders and owners of multi-unit properties all over the Washington area have been scrambling to stay on top of the technology curve. It's not just the region's technology-driven growth, which means they're building at a rapid clip. It's also the technology itself. The tech world is changing with blinding speed, but the wiring that builders install today must also satisfy tomorrow's technology needs--needs that might call for some system that's completely unknown now.
"The subject of wiring is very uncertain in our industry now because the technology is changing so quickly," said Tom Baum, vice president of development for the Charlotte-based Summit Properties Partnership L.P., a national apartment developer and owner working in this area. "It's difficult to latch on to one technology and wiring for one product, only to find out a year later, it's outdated. It's almost impossible to predict the delivery systems of the future."
No single technology has clearly emerged as the industry standard. High-speed Internet access, for example, can be delivered via phone lines, cable lines or, more rarely at the moment, wireless systems.
And it is even more unclear which one of these systems will dominate in a decade, the kind of time frame an apartment builder looks toward.
So what's their business strategy in the face of uncertainty? Cover all conceivable bases.
The majority of builders in the Washington area have begun installing in their newer buildings Category 5 copper wire, which is the same type of wire used in office computer networks. Category 5 wire is really a super-charged twisted phone wire that has the capacity to carry more data faster than an ordinary phone line.
"Every builder should be putting that wire in," said Pat Hurley, an Internet analyst with California-based TeleChoice Inc. and co-author of "Smart Homes for Dummies," a reference book for building or renovating a house with wiring that provides flexibility for tomorrow's possibilities. "When you have the walls open in a new house, it makes a lot of sense to put that in there."
In fact, nobody wants to tear up the walls again, or even install a bunch of unsightly wires later.
"In all the products we're doing, whether we're building from the ground up, or restoring a historic building, we're putting in sophisticated wiring systems with high-speed Internet access and the capacity for multiple phone and fax lines," said Jim Abdo, a D.C. developer. "We pre-wire all our units to allow clients to expand and have home offices. The last thing I want is to have Bell Atlantic stapling wires all over the beautiful trim work we've done."
Several local builders also have begun installing empty wiring tunnels running to each apartment in their new buildings. These conduits are a sort of wiring insurance policy, since they can be filled with whatever might come into being.
"We'll be able to capture whatever new technology emerges in this cable raceway to each apartment," Baum said. "No matter what anyone tells you, you can't predict what tomorrow will bring."
Builders are also putting in coaxial cable wiring, mainly for televisions at the moment. But the cable wire also can be used for Internet access with a cable modem. In a more sophisticated application, it can provide an in-home television channel where, for example, a video camera can record what's going on in the nursery while parents watch on their bedroom television set.
They're also throwing in a fiber-optic strand here or there--just in case. And although they couldn't give a definite price per unit for these applications, builders said it was a lot cheaper to do these things in the construction phase than afterward.
"We're preparing for the future with as much flexibility as possible," said Al Neely, senior vice president for development at Charles E. Smith. "We run a bundle of twisted pair telephone lines, a coaxial cable and maybe a strand of fiber for fiber optics."
Neely said his company "looked at all the technology that was out there" and decided to get prepared for all of them. "We just don't know who is going to be victorious in this battle. We're running all this wire," he said, "but we may all be wireless in five years."
Many analysts and technology companies believe the technological future could include a combination of all of the above.
"DSL, cable, wireless, satellite, we think the future holds all of those things," said Jim Whitney, a spokesman for Dulles-based America Online Inc. DSL, or digital subscriber line, is a super-fast modem-based system that works over phone lines. DSL modems operate at a much higher frequency (faster) and greater bandwidth (more data) than conventional modems.
"There's a lot of evidence that suggests all these things will coexist," said analyst Hurley. "Category 5 wire could bring it into the house and then wireless systems could extend it all over the house.
"All kinds of things will be developed that you can't even imagine now."
Staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.
Hard-Wired Every Which Way
Here's what some apartment building owners are doing to make sure their dwellings are prepped for technology:
Installing Category 5 copper wire, a super-charged twisted phone wire that can carry more data -- and carry it faster -- than a coventional phone line.
Installing broadband coaxial cable wiring (high-speed data cables).
Upgrading existing phone lines. Because voice and data travel at different frequencies, one phone line can be used simultaneously for high-speed Interent access and talking on the phone.
Installing empty tunnels into their new buildings, which can be filled later with whatever wiring is necessary.