Networking is undoubtedly the future of the custom channel. Paul Skelton reports on a new training initiative that aims to give technicians the skills they need to prosper.
Networking: it’s a topic that we’ve covered in great detail in the pages of Connected Home+Business. As margins in traditional AV equipment start to wain, integrators need to look to networking as the future of their business.
Of course, that’s very easy to say but in practice, what’s an integrator to do?
Both CEDIA and AVIXA run short courses on various aspects of networking, but aside from that there are really no all-encompassing courses that will certify a technician in the dark arts of networking.
At the recent CEDIA Expo in San Diego, Control4 unveiled the Pakedge Certified Network Administrator (PCNA) program – a training ‘experience’ that employs online coursework with hands-on practical learning using Pakedge networking gear to provide technicians the networking knowledge they need to design, install and manage wired and wireless IP networks.
“All of the signs show that networking is going to become even more important in the very near future and there will always be a need for those that can manage, install and maintain quality networks,” says Control4 senior director of product marketing Brad Hintze.
“When we looked at the data we pulled on our tech support calls, we found that around 30% of calls from technicians were network-related. So, we know that there’s a lot of pain associated with networks in projects today. We feel that pain and we knew that dealers feel that pain as well. “With PCNA, we have designed a system where technicians can learn at their own pace online. This is followed by some hands-on experience because that’s how we, as humans, retain knowledge.”
The PCNA course curriculum combines interactive coursework, online instructional office hours and an online certification exam to ensure networking competency.
“The need for a good network is so pervasive,” says Brad.
“While this course is called ‘Pakedge Certified Network Administrator’, in reality most of what technicians will learn is applicable to any brand. Technicians can take the skills we teach in this course to any job or project. It’s actually a great career development tool.
“Eventually, we hope that the PCNA brand will get some clout and ‘PCNA certified’ means something to others outside of this industry, like how ‘Cisco-certified’ carries so much weight. In the meantime, the practical knowledge and skills will be valuable additions to an integrator’s toolkit.
“Further, the PCNA course was designed with the awareness that technologies and industry best practices do change. With that in mind, we designed this course so we can go back and update the material as needed. This will give the technicians the ability to evolve and continue to grow over time.”
Practical, hands-on training for networking has largely been lacking throughout the connected home and custom install industry, explains Brad. Technicians learn mainly through trial and error. The result is that the network of many homes and small businesses tends to be the root cause of chronic issues — caused more so by the lack of best-practice knowledge than through defective or failed equipment.
“Ultimately, the main reason we’ve invested so heavily in networking and developing the PCNA program is the end user. The network is the foundation of a reliable connected home. If a network doesn’t work it doesn’t matter what connected products you are using, it’s not going to be a great experience,” says Brad.
“In completing the PCNA training program a technician will know how to setup a network to be reliable the first time and when there are issues, they’ll have the skill set to troubleshoot what is or might be wrong with that network so it can be fixed.
“In the end, the end user has a much more reliable, robust network; and, it’s been done in a very efficient way.”
Enrolment in the six-course PCNA curriculum also includes accompanying Pakedge networking equipment (with a retail value of more than $A2,500) for the hands-on tutorials, including:
- RK-1 router with BakPak;
- SX-8P managed PoE switch;
- WK-1 802.11ac WAP with 2×2 MIMO array and 1.3Gbps aggregate throughput;
- P2 power distributi on unit; and,
- Necessary cables.
“This included gear is the powerful part of the PCNA program because with it, you can watch the courses online and then interact with an actual router, switch and wireless access point (WAP), and apply the knowledge that you gained through the courses in a real-world scenario,” says Brad.
“Then, once you’re done with the course you get to keep the gear and use it in your own home. This is how we want our PCNA-certified technicians to keep their knowledge up-to-date; by living with the products you can get more familiar with them and even try new things.” Brad explains that the development of the PCNA coursework in addition to the inclusion of Pakedge networking equipment is Control4’s way of investing into the CI channel and its dealers.
“We’ve tried to make this course very affordable by making the price of the course roughly the same cost as buying the gear,” he says.
“Then, when they get their certification, we give the participants a rebate of about half of the cost of the course. It’s really a very inexpensive way of getting a technician to be proficient with all the networking skills they need for connecting a home.”
Through online guided tutorials, technicians can learn the fundamentals of how TCP/IP works. They can directly experience the material differences between different types of Ethernet cables (Cat 5e, Cat 6, Cat 6a, Cat 7), drill down into the workings and configuration options of network routers, switches and WAPs, as well as learn the logical processes for designing networks for predictable, reliable performance.
“The biggest difference about the Pakedge training is the online aspect. When training is done in-person, dealers have to get to the venue, possibly pay for a hotel and food, and they have to take a technician out of the field for up to a week. In the long run and despite an upfront cost, it is significantly less expensive to do the PCNA course online.
“It’s also very interactive. While dealers are taking the class they’re clicking around, moving stuff and virtually connecting switch ports – it’s just like the kind of engagement you get through in-person training but it’s all online.”
The schedule for the full curriculum of courses is as follows:
- Course 1: Networking Essentials
- Course 2: Switches
- Course 3: Routers
- Course 4: Wireless Access Points
- Course 5: Remote Monitoring & Management
- Course 6: Network Planning Enrolment in the PCNA certification program, including the required Pakedge gear, costs $US1,250 ($A1,620) up front, with a $US600 ($A780) rebate upon achievement of a passing score on the PCNA Exam within 60 days of registration, bringing the final cost of certification down to $US650 ($A840) per technician.
“Today, a lot of AV dealers are being pulled into network management, despite not having any experience in this space. So, they learn through trial and error,” says Brad.
“Home owners end up paying for this through additional labour costs and nobody is happy in this situation.
“If we can make it so the network just works and give technicians all the skills to make this possible, then everybody wins.”
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