Vendors engage in battle for broadband services

Vendors engage in battle for broadband services

Tammi Harbert

Vendors of fiber-optic transmission equipment are riding the information superhighway all the way to the bank. These companies are in the enviable position of supplying equipment to enterprises attempting to act as providers of broadband services to homes and businesses.

"We didn`t start the war, but we`re perfectly willing to sell bullets to both sides," quips Ron Martin, senior vice president for research and planning at Fujitsu Network Transmission Systems Inc., which owns 40% of the North American market for synchronous optical network-based equipment. The war is the battle for bandwidth among telephone companies, interexchange carriers, competitive access providers and cable-TV companies. They are fighting to become providers of broadband services, such as videoconferencing, video-on-demand, interactive services and high-speed data transfer, which are expected to blossom in the next few years.

This competitive requirement of having the capability to offer such voice, data and video services has become the major factor driving the deployment of fiber optics in the telecommunications industry. In fact, telephone companies are deploying fiber not only as a competitive offense, but as a defense to keep competitors from taking over their markets, notes Harvey Scull, vice president, advanced technology and new business development at Tellabs Operations Inc.

When building this infrastructure, network providers have several goals: The network must be reliable, easy to manage, and flexible enough to simply and quickly reconfigure or upgrade. If a network is lacking in any of these areas, say vendors, then it will be at a competitive disadvantage.

Thus, vendors are striving to produce transmission equipment that will help network providers meet these goals.

Reliability, survivability and availability are all interrelated attributes that are key in today`s competitive atmosphere. Networks carry more important data than ever before, and customers have a higher expectation of reliability than ever before, says Scull. And then there`s the competition. "If you don`t provide a reliable network, somebody else will," he says. Traditional telephone companies started to realize this nearly four years ago when CAPs started to build fiber-optic networks that offered faster connections and higher reliability than the traditional networks, he notes.

And the more reliable the network, the more the network provider may be able to charge for services. "Many operating companies are tariffing services based on the survivability of these networks," says Doug Saylor, director of strategic planning at DSC Communications Corp. Thus, ring deployment will be key in how the telecommunications companies lay out their networks, he notes.

The efficiency of the network, including the ability to support a mix of services without deploying overlay networks or wasting capacity, lies in the architectural flexibility of the ring system, say industry executives. There are different types of ring architectures, with differing degrees of reliability, maintainability, efficiency and usability. Network providers will choose equipment based on these factors as well as on the costs involved to implement and use the rings.

Fujitsu equipment, for example, uses path protection switching. Path-switched rings provide a framework for virtual rings, thereby allowing network providers to offer survivability without the expense of installing dedicated fiber when customer requirements change.

AT&T, on the other hand, claims bidirectional line-switched rings are more capable of expanding to meet higher capacities than path-switched rings.

In addition to survivability, equipment should allow network providers to configure tariffs based on various factors. The degree to which a vendor`s equipment allows network providers to structure their tariffing will be a key competitive factor, says Kenneth J. Hamer Hodges, senior vice president and chief technical officer at Telco Systems Inc. For example, Hyperlynx, Telco`s product, will support traffic measurement and new tariff creation. This will be a key competitive factor for the local exchange carriers, CAPs and cable-TV companies: They`ll compete based on how they structure their tariffs. "It`s critically important that multiplexer equipment support the need for tariffing creatively."

The chameleon factor

Flexibility is another attribute that network providers are demanding. It is important because the industry is not sure what kind of broadband services to offer, what architectures to use and how these services may change in the future.

Increased integration and software content allow this flexibility. Vendors are bringing out enhanced Sonet digital loop carrier equipment, which offers more subscriber lines and often integrates the Sonet multiplexer into the DLC itself. This new generation of products "is largely defined by software," says Joe Bass, senior director of lightwave products at Alcatel Network Systems. With Alcatel products "our customers don`t have to know up front whether it`s going to be OC-3 or OC-12 or a ring. We can make it become that," he notes.

That means software has become a key way for vendors to differentiate their products. Several estimate 70% to 75% of their engineering resources are now software related.

Much software research is concentrated on developing object-oriented-based programs that allow vendors to upgrade products or add new features, says Bryan Hall, director of marketing at Hitachi America Ltd.`s Telecommunications Division. "This allows quick introduction of new services and capabilities, which is important to our customers." Combine this with the way software and hardware interact at the network element, and you have a powerful, flexible network, he notes. Hitachi, for example, is implementing a time-slot interchange feature on its Sonet terminals that will allow network providers to change within seconds the way lines are routed. The company`s Integrated Element Management System, which was scheduled for introduction by the end of 1994, is designed to help network staff carry out network management and to allow service configuration on the fly.

Telephone companies are demanding this sort of element manager, which can run various vendors` software, says Tim Wilk, director of advanced product planning at Reliance Comm/Tec Transmission Systems. When Sonet first rolled out, "everyone had their own proprietary control system." But now that`s changing. These element managers are typically Unix-based platforms that use object managers to standardize command and response operations, he says.

Making transmission equipment modular and thus easier to adapt to changing requirements is another method of flexibility, which meets the needs of more than just traditional telephone companies, namely cable-TV companies.

Reliance Comm/ Tec`s Matrix product is compatible with a range of technologies and architectures, says Wilk. The company wanted to offer a product that would work with different physical architectures, so it optimized the system for Bell Communications Research TR303 interfaces and for asynchronous transfer mode signals. "We`ve broken those distribution pieces apart," he says, so the equipment works with hybrid fiber/coaxial cable, broadband fiber-in-the-loop, and asymmetrical digital subscriber line architectures. The customer would use the same products for these architectures, but they would be equipped with different modular shelves.

Standards questions

Standards are providing a framework in which to accomplish that. But there remain differences in the degree to which vendors are embracing the Sonet and ATM standards.

Still to be settled in Sonet are administrative issues about how to address equipment at the Data Communications Channel level, says Martin. The remote operations centers must talk to various vendors` equipment. But network providers and product vendors are sensitive about opening up a communications channel into their equipment that would allow their competitors access and control over their network and equipment.

"If I`m a network provider, do I really want someone else connected to my network to see my diagnostics and my gateway provisioning?" asks Thom Hill, director of marketing communications for broadband networks at Northern Telecom.

For this reason, many vendors of Sonet products have not yet implemented the overhead protocols, even though they`ve been defined. "If Sonet vendors aren`t aware of what they should be doing by now, I don`t think they`ll be Sonet vendors in about a year," says Wilk. He predicts that Reliance Comm/Tec will this year offer standard Sonet products, which will include the Operations, Administration, Maintenance and Provisioning protocols. While some vendors may have initially held back in the interests of protecting their own market shares, most will move to implement the protocols because of competitive pressures, he believes. Today several vendors that do not have large embedded bases of Sonet multiplexing equipment, including Reliance Comm/Tec, are moving ahead with implementation of the protocols.

Alcatel has started modifying some of its products to incorporate DCC protocols, says Bass. He predicts that by the end of 1994, Alcatel will be able to talk to at least one other vendor at the DCC level.

Martin is also confident that the industry will soon witness full Sonet implementation. He predicts full Sonet interoperability, including implementation of the OAM&P protocols, will be attained industrywide within two to three years. It will take that long because the smaller vendors will take more time to implement the protocols and to obtain certification from Bellcore, according to Martin. A vendor with little or no market share in Sonet might view DCC interoperability as a secondary issue, he notes. But the large vendors with the largest installed bases are likely to be the first to qualify for certification by Bellcore; the smaller companies will be among the last, he says.

Major vendors are not dragging their feet on implementation of the OAM&P protocols because interoperability has become a competitive factor in the market, says Martin. Interoperability entices all vendors with its potential for a broader market share.

But it still remains a question in some vendor`s minds. Tellabs will guarantee interoperability for a customer`s "preferred vendors," says Scull. "They tell us who they want to connect with, and then we work out the interoperability."

At the very least, some vendors view Sonet as a product differentiator. Vendors will differentiate their products by how they manage the DCC, says DSC Communications` Saylor. This management scheme will determine how easily products can be updated via software, either to add new features or keep up with new standards. "It`s important to provide a graceful way to upgrade your product," he says.

Bass agrees this is a key area of differentiation. "There`s a perception in the marketplace that all Sonet products are alike. That`s not true. . . . They differ in the underlying approach taken to design and build them."

Another major standard--ATM --also remains incomplete. "We have the ATM technology and the components," explains Wilk. "It`s the signaling interfaces--how to do the call setups" that are incomplete. They have been defined, but vendors have not yet implemented them in products that can work together, he says.

Saylor says the industry is following the definitions provided by the ATM Forum rather than waiting for the American National Standards Institute. The ATM Forum is made up of more than 600 companies, including equipment suppliers, local exchange carriers, end users and other companies. "Products are coming out today that conform to the Forum-defined interfaces," he says.

Vendors are starting to integrate ATM into their Sonet multiplexers. Telco Systems` Hyperlynx is a multiplexer that is sensitive to handling ATM traffic. The Sonet multiplexer can perform add/drop functions for ATM, says Hodges. It partitions the fiber for ATM. The Hyperlynx ATM/Sonet multiplexers provide cell visibility, measurement and control at the network edge, according to company literature. The Hyperlynx system integrates traditional T-1 service with ATM services such as native-rate LAN data and broadcast-quality video over a Sonet connection. The combination of cell visibility and integrated services provides carriers with a method of offering and tariffing ATM-based services for mixed data, voice and/or video traffic.

What his company considers important in Sonet is its scalable bandwidth capacity and the way it defines standard industrial components, which helps bring down product costs, says Hodges. "Less important to us is what goes into those synchronous envelopes," he explains. "We believe ATM will ultimately go into those envelopes."

Whether ATM is incorporated into the Sonet multiplexer is a strategic question for network providers because ATM can determine how expensive it will be to deliver the increased bandwidth required by new services, says Hodges. "The current T-1 orientation of Sonet makes it expensive to deliver broadband services to large numbers of users," he says. Network providers will eventually upgrade to ATM, or have their high revenue accounts taken by competitors, he maintains.

Fujitsu also says the network will be a hybrid of ATM signals and synchronous signals, claims Martin. The company`s next-generation product, expected late next year, will allow voice and perhaps video to be transported in Sonet; it will also allow data to be transported in ATM cells, he says.

Although standards are still in flux, they are not standing in the way of product development, say vendors. Rather than wait until standards are set in concrete, vendors are designing their products to change with the standards. "Standards never stop--they continually evolve," says Hall.

In fact, the standards process is sometimes aided by the evolution of products, adds Rick Jones, executive vice president of technology at Broadband Technologies Inc. "Completion of the standards will be encouraged through the experience gained in the current products," he says. "Commercial deployment often helps standards to reach closure."

Tammi Harbert is a high-technology writer and editor.

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