Telecom services gain critical mass

Recent SuperComm 2005 reflects adoption of WiMax and VOIP; IPv6 shift underway

Last month, the telecommunications industry descended on Chicago for SuperComm 2005, arguably the world's most important conference for all things networking. Status reports emerged for most of the latest technologies, from WiMax to IP Version 6. Here are collected dispatches from the show.

WiMax inches along

WiMax broadband technology has made some important steps toward real-world implementation, but many customers may be waiting for assurances of multivendor interoperability before investing in the new wireless equipment.

'A lot has happened in the past year,' said David Sumi, vice president of marketing for TeleCIS Wireless Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif., and a member of the WiMax Forum, an industry group promoting the adoption of the new technology forum member. The first chip sets for the wireless technology have been announced, the WiMax Forum selected its first laboratory for product certification, and agreements have been reached between U.S., European and Korean industry groups to harmonize standards for wireless broadband.

'The main thing that has happened in the last year is that people have been out deploying the WiMax kit,' said Carlton O'Neal, vice president of marketing for Alvarion Inc. of Mountain View, Calif.

The schedule for certifying products slipped by six months in the last year, but 'even without certified equipment, the carriers are showing a great demand,' O'Neal said. 'There is some risk' in buying precertification products, he conceded, 'but we don't think it's a lot.'

WiMax is based on the evolving IEEE 802.16 family of wireless standards for delivering high-bandwidth data over long distances. It is seen as a wide-area complement to popular 802.11 WiFi services.

One example of early adoption of WiMax is remote Allegany County in mountainous Western Maryland, O'Neal said. The government wanted to network its 900 public buildings, but could afford to run fiber-optic cable to only 30. It decided to use WiMax even though standards were not complete.

Equipment manufacturers have great hopes for a federal WiMax market. WANs and metropolitan area networks for office campuses and military bases would be ideal applications for the technology, they say. But like most of the U.S. market, the feds are in a testing, not an adopting, stage.

WiMax implementations and certification specs so far have been for fixed communications. Coming in the next year will be more mobility as the 802.16e specifications are completed for applications such as cellular. But moving from demonstrations to interoperable equipment will be complicated.

'Mobile is a lot more iffy right now,' Sumi said.

Mobile WiMax could compete with third-generation Code Division Multiple Access technology, intended to deliver more bandwidth to handheld cellular devices.

'3G bandwidth is not that impressive,' Sumi said. It provides 1 Kbps to 2 Kbps per user, rather than the megabit-range speeds promised by WiMax. 'There are religious wars on either side about whether 3G can deliver that.'

VOIP still faces hurdles

The movement of voice traffic onto data networks is seen almost as inevitable, and administrators are readying their networks for voice over IP. In an April survey of federal, state and local IT officials by Network General Corp., 57 percent of respondents named VOIP as the most important network initiative they face for the coming year.

Jim Vale, product manager for the San Jose, Calif., company's Sniffer Voice performance analysis tool, said organizations are planning now for investments needed in the next budget cycle to support VOIP.

But moving VOIP from test beds onto production networks requires ironing out some wrinkles remaining in the new technology, including security, protocol selection and support for services such as 911 emergency calls.

Vale said most customers now are in the piloting and testing phase of VOIP, but added they are moving with caution toward rollout of production applications. 'They know it to be a high-risk application,' because telecommunications is mission-critical in every enterprise.

Only a handful of government organizations are moving beyond the pilot phase. 'In particular, Defense,' Vale said. 'That is an area where we have seen sizeable and creative implementations.'

Regardless of the momentum VOIP achieves, coexistence will be the watchword for a long time, said Chris Thompson, product manager for Adtran Inc. of Huntsville, Ala.

Adtran announced its new line of VOIP gateways, the Total Access 900 series of integrated access devices. The 900 series supports legacy analog systems with multiple analog interfaces as well as PBX handoff and Ethernet LAN and T1 WAN connections. The new series also supports the Session Initiation Protocol. SIP is an application-level signaling protocol for setting up, maintaining and terminating multimedia sessions, including voice. It is an alternative to the more widely deployed H.323 standard from the International Telecommunications Union, and is better suited for the Internet.

IP v.6 expanding

The California IPv6 Task Force is making plans to roll out a pilot network using the new version of the Internet Protocols for state and local first responders within the coming year. The program, to be called MetroNet6, is in the early stages of development. Jim Bound, chief technology officer for the North American IPv6 Task Force, said the network probably would use 802.11 wireless networking to connect police, fire and emergency medical personnel at the local level. The MoonV6 test bed network could provide a nationwide command and control link.

The Internet Protocols are the set of rules defining how computers and network devices communicate with each other. The Internet primarily uses Version 4 of the protocols now, but the global network is rapidly outgrowing the capacities of IP v.4. The new set of protocols, in development for the past year, promises more secure and simpler end-to-end communications, with a greatly expanded address space that will level the playing field for those parts of the world that do not have access to the limited number of IP v.4 addresses.

Latif Ladid, chairman of the international IPv6 Forum, said the Defense Department's decision to move its networks toward IP v.6 will help to spur the transition globally.

'Defense is always a first driver,' for such a move, Ladid said. 'The DOD decision is a prime mover, not only in the U.S. but in the world.' He said Europe has been lukewarm on moving to the new protocols, waiting for U.S. leadership in this area.

Now's the time

Yanick Pouffary, technical director of the North America IPv6 Task Force, said there is no end date for a worldwide transition to IP v.6, but that network administrators should begin planning for the shift. 'When to transition depends on many factors,' she said. 'But the time to start planning is now.'

She praised the DOD model of phasing the new protocols in over a period of years.

Ethernet was developed as a local area networking technology, but it is pushing out to the metro and wide area arenas.

'Over the last several years, we've been building up the elements of Ethernet outside of the enterprise,' said Mark Fishburn, chairman of the Metro Ethernet Forum.

The forum, an industry organization that promotes carrier class Ethernet, has completed work on 12 specifications for implementing existing standards into products. The goal is to enable and certify interoperable Ethernet networking products. At SuperComm, forum members demonstrated Ethernet performing VOIP, IP television and other enterprise networking functions. Analysts predict the market for carrier Ethernet equipment will double by 2008, to $7.6 billion.

Ethernet, developed in the early 1970s, has grown up with the Internet. The chips and networking equipment are ubiquitous and cheap; the technology is reliable; and it is well understood by network administrators. Ethernet is estimated to be 40 to 60 percent cheaper than asynchronous transfer mode.

Although ATM has a good grip on wide area networking, Ethernet is cheaper and easier to manage, said Ann Mahoney, a vice president of marketing for Time Warner's data and Internet services. 'You can pass more traffic than you can by frame. Ethernet is a great vehicle for moving large amounts of data quickly and easily.'

The government market has been slow to adopt Ethernet in the WAN because of the ATM installed base, said Jim Johnson, senior director of Time Warner federal programs.

Still, 'we've been most successful in the DOD side,' where the company is not competing with contract holders in the General Services Administration's Metropolitan Area Acquisition telecom program, Johnson said. 'We're starting to see this asked for in contracts.'

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