Faster connections, converging streams and wireless breakthroughs promise a new world of communications
By Richard W. Walker
Agencies make plans to put convergence on the map
Is convergence all talk and no action?
Not entirely. But while voice, data and multimedia are starting to be carried on single networks, true convergence is still mostly the province of the high-tech chattering classes.
'When you talk about convergence, you're generally talking about converging on an IP layer, because IP is the language of the Web and it's ubiquitous,' said Alex Benik, an associate data communications analyst at the Yankee Group of Boston. 'And so there are some issues in terms of providing quality of service and guaranteeing that when you send something it arrives at its location in a timely fashion.'
Quality of service is a key issue for convergence.
'There's certainly lots of technological work going on in terms of providing the type of quality you'd expect from a voice network in the IP network,' Benik said. He pointed to the quality-of-service promise of technologies such as Multiprotocol Label Switching, a protocol that augurs dramatic improvements in packet-routing efficiency. But the MPLS standard is still a work in progress.
Another challenge is determining how it would all work on the client side, said John Eidsness, senior manager for product development at Bell Atlantic Federal of Washington.
'People are trying to figure out how to merge all of the client devices at the workstation'computer telephony integration, access to enterprise databases, being able to link back and forth to pull down files simultaneously while you're talking on voice or using video in motion, and things like that,' he said. 'People are trying to navigate their way through the technological capabilities vs. the business interests and the standards as they are emerging and developing. That's the stew they're trying to sort out on the client side.'
For federal agencies, the bottom line is that most of the pieces of the convergence puzzle are not yet in place. 'I don't think that our customers accept today that the quality of the voice message on data networks is up to the standards of the voice networks,' said Frank Lalley, assistant commissioner for service delivery at the General Services Administration's Federal Technology Service. 'But I think people expect that it will be very soon. So from a customer standpoint, we're still looking for that real-life demonstration that works.'
Jim O'Neill, president of Lucent Technologies Government Solutions, a unit of Lucent Technologies Inc. of Murray Hill, N.J., cites a paradox in the road toward convergence: It is both evolutionary and revolutionary. Demand for applications is driving technological revolutions, he said, but agencies would rather keep what works well today and let it evolve, rather than throw it all out and start over.
Lalley said there also are organizational hurdles to convergence.
'A consideration for us, for the government, is that generally the people who buy voice service are different from the people who buy data service, and there's a bit of competition between the two worlds to retain their place, so I think some organizational structure changes will have to be addressed before it starts to work well,' he said.
Then there's pricing.
'There's a whole science built up on how you price voice service by the phone call, by the minute,' Lalley said. 'The pricing structure for a data network call is quite different than that, and we need to work through those pricing differences, too.'
Local and long-distance telecom markets could merge under GSA's Metropolitan Area Acquisitions, FTS' Frank Lalley says.
He predicted that 'we're going to move away from all the detail in the voice system, the minute-by-minute monitoring, and we're going to start to see some subscription prices for service'flat rates'much like you see for Internet access today. I think we're going to move voice service to the data model.'
But as telecom prices tumble, cost will be less of an issue. 'If people can move voice traffic at very low data network prices, that's going to stimulate the movement to convergence,' he said.
When agencies are ready for convergence, FTS will be set to go, Lalley said. The procurement vehicle will be FTS 2001.
'The contract can handle either world,' he said. 'As long as the old model continues, we'll buy service using that under this contract. When the new model'the converged model'is accepted, our contract can handle that, too.'
Ultimately, as Lucent's O'Neill said, the value of convergence is in converged applications.
Once the quality of service is available, agencies will have to determine which converged applications they need to advance their missions.
'The trick will be first defining what is the business problem [the agency] is trying to solve,' Bell Atlantic's Eidsness said.
Lalley also envisions a convergence of local and long-distance telecom markets under GSA's Metropolitan Area Acquisitions.
'As the local markets become more competitive you're going to see long-distance companies starting to provide local service in those markets and, with the MAA contracts, you're going to start to see local suppliers providing long-distance service, too,' he said. 'Don't look to segregation of markets like you see today.'Custom services
Broadly, Lalley envisions a shift in FTS' approach to doing business.
'Customers generally came to us in the past to install, say, frame relay service,' he said. 'We'd like to be in a position where a customer would come to us and say: 'I need to improve the way my organization communicates with my customers. What can you do for us?' And we would then supply them network services, equipment'the whole solution, which would mean completely re-engineering the way they do the mission portion of their business, not just the telecom portion.'
As a result, 'we're looking to be an integrator of information technology and telecommunications,' he said.
On other communications fronts, agencies can expect major thrusts forward in areas such as wireless and satellite technology.
But as in the case of convergence, those advances are still in the early stages.
The Bluetooth initiative, for example, offers the potential of short-range (about 10 yards) wireless links among all sorts of devices: notebook and desktop PCs, handheld computers, cellular telephones and other portable equipment.
The project, supported by a group of computer and telecommunications companies, is in the final stages of defining the Bluetooth specification.
New satellite technologies also hold much promise, despite, for example, the recent collapse of a major venture in the satellite phone market.
One satellite-phone company, Globalstar LP of Bethesda, Md., is working on a system that would use less expensive handsets and offer cheaper services than its predecessors. Another company, SkyBridge LP of San Jose, Calif., is planning a satellite system that would blanket the world with broadband data service, but service is not expected to start for several years.
So while the future appears bright for new communications technologies and services, it's still a waiting game.