Voice and video carriers explore data transport methods and services

Voice and video carriers explore data transport methods and services

Telephone and cable companies agree that asynchronous transfer mode, synchronous optical network and fiber-optic technologies constitute the platform for delivering very high-speed data traffic, but that challenging cost and architectural issues abound

Mitch shapiro

Increased demand for local area network interconnection, Internet access and online service, and the evolution of information traffic from numbers and text to bandwidth-intensive multimedia video and imaging have led to a double-digit growth rate for the data communications market. This growth is expected to continue as convergence and competition intensify in the marketplace. Understandably, data communications has emerged as a key force that is driving network planners and providers to cost-effectively install fiber-optics-based networks and deliver multimedia services.

Major drivers for deploying data communications include local exchange carriers, competitive access providers, interexchange carriers and cable operators. They are steadily evolving their data transmission protocols from today`s frame relay and switched multimegabit data services to tomorrow`s synchronous optical network and asynchronous transfer mode technologies over fiber-optics-based networks.

Here is an overview of their data communications network and service deployment strategies.

Local exchange carriers

Local exchange carriers are moving forward on multiple fronts in the data communications market. Early ATM adopters want 45- to 155-megabit-per-second data rates, more than 600 Mbits/sec within a few years and a mix of data, voice and video traffic.

Fiber distributed data interface ring networks, which typically provide data rates to 100 Mbits/sec, have been deployed by some local exchange carriers, mostly for government campus-type network applications, such as Bell Atlantic`s multiple-ring networks in Washington, DC.

However, while most carriers agree that ATM will be the leader in the high-speed data and multimedia markets, they disagree on the best way to implement the technologies over fiber-optic networks. For example, although SMDS has some advantages for inter-enterprise networking, there is disagreement about how--if at all--the technology fits into the evolution of fiber-optics-based broadband data services.

John Seazholtz, vice president for network technology planning at Bell Atlantic, says that in addition to offering frame-relay data services tariffed to 1.5 Mbits/sec, Bell Atlantic has been pushing switched multimegabit data service that can support data rates to 45 Mbits/sec. Seazholt¥sees this service as suiting high-speed Internet access and other inter-enterprise applications.

Whereas Bell Atlantic will be deploying ATM switches in the near term, Seazholt¥distinguishes ATM switches from ATM services. He sees growing demand for ATM services later in this decade, when ATM switches are expected to be widely deployed. Moreover, he says that ATM standards will be fully developed by then, and the demand for switched, variable-rate multimedia services will have grown considerably. Until then, Seazholt¥sees ATM switches being used "to support today`s suite of services" and expects SMDS to "meet most demands for high-speed switched data services this decade."

In Dover Township, NJ, Bell Atlantic has deployed a switched digital video fiber network supplied by Broadband Technologies. Having received Federal Communications Commission approval of its tariffs Bell Atlantic plans initially offer traditional cable and enhanced video services. Seazholt¥suggests that the fiber-optic network will eventually deliver interactive services via ATM packets to both personal computers and television sets in Dover homes.

Other local exchange carriers have less bullish views of SMDS`s market prospects. Rashmi Doshi, director of Nynex Science and Technology, for example, says that while his company`s fiber-optic backbone network can support SMDS, he has "not seen a big push" in the market for this service. And although the first half of 1995 saw Nynex "aggressively pushing frame relay," says Doshi, the carrier has yet to launch "any technical or marketing plans to support" SMDS.

Doshi says Nynex is testing ATM equipment in the laboratory and is working with Wiltel on an ATM trial that would link educational institutions in the state of New York. He says Nynex plans to deploy "some devices in the network by year end" and tariff ATM services in 1996. ATM switches, says Doshi, will be used not only to provide ATM services, but also to act as tandem switches for the company`s frame-relay traffic.

At another local exchange carrier, Jim Schwartz, Ameritech marketing manager for broadband communications, describes SMDS as a "fabulous technology," but it is not selling as well as frame relay, which is undergoing incredible growth. And although he believes there will "always be niches for SMDS," Schwart¥sees frame relay as a "more mature" technology. For example, frame-relay-to-ATM internetworking is "coming along well," he says, while SMDS-to-ATM internetworking is lagging behind.

At mid-year, Ameritech had seven ATM switches deployed in its network, one in each of seven major metropolitan areas. Its largest ATM network is in Dayton, OH, where the Greater Dayton Hospital Association is a major customer.

Among the key steps toward ATM market penetration, suggests Schwartz, are the development of bandwidth-intense multimedia applications, price reductions in customer equipment and standardization of ATM technology.

Another telephone company--BellSouth--offers frame-relay service to 45 Mbits/sec and a 56-kilobit-per-second to 1.5-Mbit/sec data service that Ken Hawkins, broadband data services product manager, refers to as "our version of SMDS."

In North Carolina, BellSouth has teamed with GTE, Sprint, AT&T and small independent local exchange carriers to create the first statewide ATM fiber-optic network. The project began with a request from the state government, which was seeking ways to support a range of high-speed data, video and multimedia applications.

Today, there is at least one ATM switch in each of the state`s seven local access and transport areas. By the end of 1995, 128 sites are expected to be linked to the ATM network via optical carrier, level three (155-Mbit/sec) fiber-optic links. The first applications on the network are interactive video for distance learning. According to John Killebrew, broadband sales manager at BellSouth Business Systems, with the integration of high-speed-data fiber-optic links, the distance learning network was expanded from eight to 25 sites this summer.

Last May, the North Carolina Utilities Commission approved Southern Bell`s commercial ATM tariff. The first customer is Freightliner Corp., which will initially use the ATM network for interactive training.

Competitive access providers

In pursuing high-speed data customers, competitive access providers enjoy several advantages over the local exchange carriers. In many applications, the competitive access providers face fewer regulations and are usually better organized to provide customers with total data communications solutions. They also provide large dispersed businesses with a nationwide uniformity of services and fiber-optic networks that typically cannot be matched by the local exchange carriers.

For example, MFS Datanet, a subsidiary of MFS Communications Inc., offers local and interexchange data services and fiber-optic networks, including native LAN-speed services, frame relay and ATM, within and among 20 major US cities. The company became an ATM pioneer in 1993 by installing a 45-Mbit/sec fiber-optics-based backbone network which, as of mid-1995, included a dozen ATM switches.

Although MFS Datanet competes with the local exchange carriers for business, it also works with them in other applications, says Bob Barbour, director of marketing services. For example, he explains that MFS Datanet might provide frame-relay service for calls originating in one area code but terminating in another, to extend services provided by local exchange carriers to customer locations in separate local access and transport areas.

Teleport Communication Group, another major competitive access provider, is beginning its ATM deployment this year with a switch in New York, followed by installations in Boston, Dallas, Chicago and San Francisco. According to Roy Rozner, TCG vice president for data services, the company will have ATM available in nine to 15 cities by January.

The company is expected to join a venture with Sprint, Tele-Communications Inc., Cox Communications and Comcast Corp. Teleport plans to provide data and other services to metropolitan-area business customers over fiber-optics-based networks. Sprint will handle interexchange services, and the cable operators will extend services to residential areas.

Faced with strong competition from competitive access providers, regional Bell operating companies have begun to expand the range of services they provide. For example, Ameritech`s Schwart¥says that some large companies that bought transport services from other carriers are looking to Ameritech for "packaged solutions" to their data communications needs. As "MIS and telecommunications managers become more strategically oriented," he explains, "they have less time to focus on bits and bytes" and are increasingly relying on carriers` fiber-optic network expertise to provide total systems solutions.

US West has also been providing customers with a range of data networking services, including customer premises equipment, network management, integration and training services. US West is expanding its service areas and competing with other local exchange carriers by forming data-related joint ventures with competitive access providers. According to Scott Chandler, US West vice president, the company is operating in seven markets outside its service territory and plans to be in at least a dozen more by 1996.

Interexchange carriers

Similar to the vigorous communications and networking activities in the local exchange market, the interexchange market is also seeing rapid growth in demand for data services and fiber-optics-based networks.

According to Dominick DeAngelo, Sprint`s vice president for data product marketing, Sprint`s X.25 data transmission growth remained strong during the first half of 1995. He believes that domestic demand will slow down later in the decade as online services migrate to higher-speed technologies such as Internet protocol networks. Although there are few fiber-optic networks in some overseas markets, he expects international demand for X.25 service to boom.

In 1993, Sprint became the first long-distance carrier to offer a nationwide ATM service over fiber-optic networks. It currently has a half dozen ATM customers, mainly in the government sector. The company is installing ATM switches at four sites and is backhauling ATM traffic to these sites from other network points of presence.

Sprint is also deploying a nationwide four-fiber, bidirectional Sonet-ring transport architecture. As of June, it has activated 16 of 43 regional Sonet rings, with the remainder scheduled to be completed by mid-1996. By the end of 1998, Sprint expects all its traffic to be carried on Sonet-ring fiber networks at 155 Mbits/sec.

AT&T is also introducing ATM into its fiber-optic architecture as part of a three-year upgrade plan. The upgrade will include deployment of more than 50 regional four-fiber bidirectional Sonet rings, optical amplifiers and wavelength-division multiplexers that transmit signals over eight wavelengths and support increases in fiber capacity from 1.7 to 20 gigabits per second. MCI was the first major interexchange carrier to offer ATM speeds to 155 Mbits/sec over fiber-optic networks. It is also the only major interexchange carrier that offers local access and transport area switched multimegabit data service at speeds from 56 kbits/sec to 45 Mbits/sec. Although MCI reports strong growth in SMDS demand, the other major interexchange carriers have largely ignored the service, focusing instead on fast-growing frame relay and anticipating a migration directly to ATM and fiber-optics-based networks for higher-speed data services.

To compete efficiently with the telephony industry, the cable-TV industry is striving to provide very-high-speed data services to residential customers. To accomplish this goal, cable operators are running technical and market trials using data modems. They are also planning to launch online and Internet access services.

Although the hybrid fiber/coaxial-cable networks used in cable-TV systems are rich in bandwidth, many cannot adequately handle two-way transmissions. According to Larry Yokel, president of Convergence Industry Associates, and an industry analyst on cable modems, the key hybrid fiber/coaxial-cable network issues that need to be addressed include:

Limited availability of "clean" upstream spectrum and associated low-cost test equipment

Scaling up of hardware and software systems as the market expands for data and other two-way services

Cable modem pricing and availability

Staffing and operational issues related to traffic engineering, installation and customer support.

Continental Cablevision has already endured the trials and tribulations of delivering cable-based telecommuting and online services. Among the data challenges in Internet service, says David Fellows, senior vice president of engineering and technology, are router and modem software compatibility, privacy, security and billing, as well as technical ingress problems in the coaxial-cable plant.

Larry Romrell, president and chief executive of TCI Technology Ventures, contends that "cable companies are equipped to offer the high-speed network that will enable [Internet access and online] services." Plans call for Internet access to be available in TCI systems early next year and to be marketed later to non-TCI systems nationwide. Two-way data traffic will be carried on cable networks that will be upgraded with two-way hybrid fiber/coaxial-cable architectures. In older cable systems that have not yet been upgraded by fiber-based two-way upgrades, upstream data signals will be carried over telephone lines. As part of its data communications agenda, TCI in July issued a cable modem request for proposal.

In Hampton Roads, VA, Cox is working with Northern Telecom and Virginia Power to test Northern Telecom`s integrated digital transport platform. Steve Becker, director of broadband services-commercial markets at Cox, says the 6-to-12 month test program will involve delivery of telephony, high-speed data, video and energy management applications over fiber-optic networks to a limited number of Cox and Virginia Power employees` homes during 1995. u

Mitch Shapiro is a freelance writer based in Encinitas, CA.

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