Telecom Act creates a broad band of opportunity
TRAVER H. KENNEDY
The broadband wars began within days of the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. As anticipated, the Act opened a floodgate of investment, yielding a greater variety of voice and data services. Users` demands are exploding as we move from a world that completes 100 million telephone calls per hour to a predicted 300 million calls per hour worldwide by 2001. For fiber suppliers, this demand translates into opportunity in wide area networks (WANs) and, increasingly, in corporate backbone architectures as desktop computer users make increased demands on their local area networks (LANs).
"We all expect higher-quality communications tools at work than at home," says Dale Harris, Stanford University`s chairman of electrical engineering. He spoke at Adaptec`s ATM to the Desktop Summit held recently in San Francisco. "We may begin to see faster connections at home [than at work], which will accelerate the bandwidth race in response to the Telecom Act."
For example, the Internet craze has made hundreds of millions of users expect a World Wide Wait instead of a World Wide Web. Cable modems, Integrated Services Digital Network and new media broadband deployments should get us all zooming down the I-way. Instead, they often reinforce the services versus speed dilemma facing users and network managers alike, which often manifests itself in the form of locked-up access or power-user pulldown on an otherwise adequate network. As managers attempt to segment their traffic with zoning partitions, this segmentation adds complexity to an often unmanageable situation.
Migration is mandatory
With new service and bandwidth requirements, LANs are being forced to expand and migrate to a new architecture. This migration is required not only because of bandwidth needs, but also because of increased management demands placed on shrinking support staffs. According to Mark Abbott of Oregon State University`s Ocean Administration, who is currently working on a joint NASA/OSU project, "At a time when there is an inverse relationship between LAN expansion needs and technical support budgets, desktop users need efficient scalable LAN architectures."
One such architecture is a Synchronous Optical Network (Sonet) backbone attached to hubs that incorporate connectivity solutions to legacy LAN implementations such as Token Ring, Ethernet, and LocalTalk and offer forward capability to switched Ethernet and desktop Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM). Sonet backbones create value by leveraging existing communications investments while supporting future integrated communications applications such as desktop telephony, unified messaging and server-based call control.
In response to the new market dynamic, Mitel of Kanata, Ontario, Canada, developed its fiber backbone NeVaDa--for networked voice and data--in an alliance with Madge Networks. NeVaDa, announced at Interop in Las Vegas in April, is a scalable, enhanceable Sonet architecture capable of carrying voice, video and data at OC-3 rates of 155 megabits per second through a unified WAN gateway. In addition to improving its quick-to-market capability, Mitel`s approach ensures that users do not experience compatibility and interoperability problems.
For data communications network managers, things will likely become more difficult before they become easier. In the future, local area networking will begin to resemble telephony platforms, where circuits are set up and torn down as needed. "Information systems managers are not skilled in this type of implementation," cautions Oregon State`s Abbott.
Sandia National Laboratories network architect John Neagle has observed another disparity between telephony and data network cultures. "Telephony technology managers have a high sensitivity to reliability; information technology managers have a sensitivity to cost."
Fiber backbones running hybrid fiber/coaxial-cable (HFC) or ATM architectures appear to meet both requirements. "In the future, routers will be pulled back to the core as a central service, and ATM switches will be used for aggregation," Neagle acknowledges. In Mitel`s architecture, fiber optics offers flexibility as router-based architectures implemented on fiber backbones can migrate to a simplified ATM-switched design over time. "In the end, ATM is the glue to the desktop," Abbott says.
However, critics argue that ATM is not ready for desktop use. They say it is costly and appropriate only for heavy power users. Today, this is only partly true. Pricing is $500 per seat, including the network interface card and switch port. Desktop ATM, which supports 25 and 155 Mbits/sec, is available from a number of suppliers, including IBM and Adaptec. A key advantage of desktop ATM is that the LAN becomes a simplified, transaction-oriented whole. No longer is data inefficiently broadcast throughout the network. In maturity, desktop ATM promises a level of reliability that desktop users have never known. As a result, the LAN and WAN architectures mirror one another, with the translation of cell sets minimized and a unified WAN gateway available for all users.
By moving the data to ATM at the outset, all network functions become synchronous, at least in theory. Current challenges to desktop ATM are similar to many of the challenges of ATM on the WAN. Congestion management, improved management tools and greater buffering capability are all problems in search of solutions by early adopters.
Whether it is based on ATM, HFC or another architecture, a Sonet backbone is a fundamental first step in backbone migration for corporate campus and large workgroup applications. For fiber suppliers, it does not really matter which came first-- the Telecom Act or user demand. Nor does it matter which public carrier wins the war. Organizations large and small, local and global, all need fiber solutions for efficiency and competitive advantage. q
This is the first in a series of monthly opinion articles on the constantly changing communications environment in light of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.--Ed.
Traver H. Kennedy is director of WAN services and research for the Aberdeen Group in Boston. Kennedy has 18 years of senior management and technology experience and consults worldwide on strategic planning and business issues with regulators, corporate boards and senior management. Before joining the Aberdeen Group, he served venture capital funds based in the United States, Switzerland and China. Kennedy has worked with communications suppliers Ameritech, Time Warner and Bell South, among others, and with policy-making agencies such as the International Telecommunication Union, the Federal Communications Commission, the U.S. Information Agency and the U.S. Senate. Kennedy can be reached at tel: (617) 854-5233, fax: (617) 723-7897, or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.