In the end, it's all one big network

CHICAGO'What used to be called telecommunications has been merged into a global communications technology in which the distinction between the applications being delivered and the media used to deliver it are disappearing.

'Everyone knows the future is an all-IP network,' said Dan Wonak, director of marketing for IntelliNet Technologies of Melbourne, Fla. 'The only difference is the method of access. TV, cell phone, computer'it's all coming from the same media supplier.'

The Telecommunications Industry Association has acknowledged this shift by revamping its annual trade show, formerly known as SuperComm. After closing out the old franchise with last year's show, it debuted the GlobalComm brand this year, and there is not a lot of attention being paid on the show floor to traditional circuit-switched voice networks.

One of the phrases most frequently used at this year's show is IP Multimedia Subsystems, and the IMS Forum is holding its annual meeting at this year's conference.

IMS is not about flashy applications you can access from the latest portable device. It is a network signaling architecture that ties together all types of voice, video and data services, whether delivered over a wired or wireless network, to fixed or mobile endpoints.

'Our piece is rather boring,' Wonak said with uncharacteristic candor for a marketing guy. 'We're in the guts of the network. Nobody knows we're there.'

'IMS is trying to crack the code for a common signaling network architecture,' said Ron De Lange, president and general manager of the network signaling group of Tekelec of Morrisville, N.C. 'It's trying to be independent of how you access the network.'

IMS is a standard developed by the 3rd Generation Partnership Program to provide a common platform for service providers to authenticate users and authorize access to services on advanced networks, and provides customer accounting for billing data. IMS Forum is a technology-neutral advocate of the standard that promotes development of interoperable products.

The forum began life as the International Softswitch Consortium, and its evolution illustrates changes in the networking industry. ISC initially focused on dial-up Internet service provisioning over traditional telephone lines, said forum chairman Michael Khalilian.

'We were running out of space on our telephone switches,' as users with modems were keeping their connections for hours at a time rather than for the few minutes that was standard for traditional telephone calls, Khalilian said.

A new generation of gateways was developed to address this issue, but with the migration of voice to IP networks a new set of issues developed as the telecom industry became linked more closely with other types of networks and services. ISC became the International Packet Communications Consortium. Distinctions between networks and services have since become more blurred.

'Today, there is no boundary between Internet, wireless, cable and multimedia service providers,' Khalilian said. Early this year IPCC became the IMS Forum.

The forum has two broad goals: To develop modular architectures and applications using IMS technology that will be able to interoperate as services are bundled, and to promote interoperability testing of the products. De Lange compared the current service provider environment to separate strands of pasta, as opposed to a layered structure like lasagna.

'It's a big change for service providers to go from spaghetti to lasagna,' he said.

De Lange said the IMS standard 'is about 80 percent baked. What is going on now is a lot of lab testing' of products. He said he expected to see early market trials of IMS equipment late this year or early next.

Many equipment vendors now are focusing on providing a transition path to IMS without major network overhauls. Tekelec announced at GlobalComm its TekCore IMS signaling platform that enables multimedia services on existing networks. It works with the company's Eagle 5 Integrated Signaling System to provide session integration protocol signaling. It also announced its TekMedia Short Message Service solution to allow multimedia messaging beyond existing test messaging services. TekMedia also integrates SIP with IMS.

IntelliNet is showing off Accelero, its carrier product that uses the Diameter Protocol for authentication, authorization and accounting for multimedia services. Accelero supports legacy applications on IMS architectures.

How quickly networks adopt IMS, if they adopt it at all, is anyone's guess at this point.

'Is there a killer app? At this point, no,' De Lange said. It will depend on the cost point for delivering existing services. 'We think that there is going to be a long, sustained need for customers to exist in a blended world.'

With no killer app and consumer spending relatively flat for communications services, the cost of network upgrades limits the speed with which new standards are adopted.

'Who is going to pay for all of this?' said Wonak. 'That's where the whole things comes to a screeching halt.'

But even if the transition is gradual, equipment manufacturers see a market for the new standard. Upgrades have traditionally been paid for with capital budgets as new infrastructure capacity has been required, Wonak said.

'People have been investing in new technology all along,' he said.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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