It will probably be another five years before the economic case is made for enterprises to tie their voice and data traffic together on a single network, say Gartner analysts watching the convergence of fiber-based networks.
But the cable providers arent waiting around: The multiple system operators (MSOs) spent $12.43 billion upgrading their infrastructures and facilities to deliver improved video, voice and high-speed communications. Now its the supporting companies turn to shine, with systems that speed the rollout of must-have services — including IP telephony, videoconferencing and corporate networking — to businesses worldwide.
"Voice-over-Cable and Voice-over-IP [VoIP] on cable is very real and very tangible," says Asher Waldfogel, chief technical officer of TollBridge Technologies, an IP-based Voice-over-Broadband gear maker.
There are already 1.3 million residential customers who get their local phone service over cable. In June, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association estimated that Adelphia Business Solutions/Hyperion, Cablevision Lightpath, Cox Fibernet/Cox Business Services and Time Warner Telecom are providing business telephony service to the tune of 15 million lines.
"The problem that all the operators are dealing with right now is how to do cable telephony without stealing channels," Waldfogel says. Today, MSOs build an overlay to carry voice over hybrid coaxial cable. "This is how Voice-over-Cable is done by AT&T Broadband and Cox [Communications]. The technology is mature and it works, but it turns out that it is fairly expensive and not as scalable as MSOs would like. It steals a lot of frequency spectrum, and presents a whole bunch of technology and business issues."
The announcement of Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS) 2.0 late last month is an indication that bandwidth problems may soon be solved, clearing the way for rapid deployment of business-class IP services over cable. Cable Television Laboratories, an industry consortium, says the new specification should triple the upstream capacity per 5-megahertz cable channel over existing Hybrid Fiber-Coax networks to 30 megabits per second.
DOCSIS 1.0 enabled high-speed Internet access, and DOCSIS 1.1 provided the roadmap to deliver VoIP. DOCSIS 2.0 deals with the bandwidth issue, providing the kind of symmetrical pipe that will enable advanced business services. "It takes it to the reality of what the users and consumers would like to have," says Rouzbeh Yassini, a CableLabs executive consultant.
The specification will be complete by years end, and product testing and certification should begin in 2002.
"DOCSIS 2.0 definitely widens the highway and increases the speed limit substantially," says Richard Prodan, chief scientist and head of Terayon Communication Systems Network Solutions Group. "Now you have a place to put the services, and you dont have to rebuild the plant."
Prodan, formerly CTO of CableLabs, is particularly pleased that DOCSIS 2.0 will include Synchronous Code Division Multiple Access and Advanced frequency agile Time Division Multiple Access (A-TDMA) modulation techniques. Not coincidentally, Terayons Voice-over-Cable gear uses S-CDMA, which Prodan says is particularly robust, "allowing you to pack more into the pipe."
Launched two weeks ago, Terayons Network Solutions Group operates as an independent consulting arm of the companys Digital Cable Solutions Division, working with cable operators to develop network system architectures using gear from multiple vendors. CableLabs earlier PacketCable project mapped out an IP strategy for cable, and vendors dutifully developed network components to packetize the last mile.
TollBridges TB300 Voice Gateway is an IP digital terminal gateway that allows MSOs to deliver toll-quality voice services. It typically sits in the cable headend, converting VoIP traffic from the customer, through the headend and on to Class 5 switches or softswitches in the public switched telephone network. "Its a very straightforward application of VoIP. And whats great about it is that the customer is not sitting there, impatiently waiting for somebody to come up with 22 class features. We have all the class features ever invented," Waldfogel says.
But customers want more than just call forwarding and caller ID, says Kenny Van Zant, chief operating officer and co-founder of BroadJump, a developer of software that streamlines installation and management of broadband connections, and helps providers push new services such as firewalls, virus protection and automatic data backup. "The real vision that should get someone out of bed if theyre running a broadband network is the idea of making broadband profitable by adding services to the basic technology," Van Zant says.
But an industry that, as Prodan says, "does not test the depth of the river with both feet" is unlikely to make a run at rolling out advanced services until it can prove the business case. BroadJump helps cut the cost of customer acquisition by allowing remote provisioning on the network side and self installs on the customer side, Van Zant says.
"It gets down to: When do voice and video and data truly converge into one platform and one back-end system?" Van Zant says. "Our tools have been built with that future and vision in mind. But what we havent seen is a clear decision by the cable providers to jump into that convergence strategy with both feet. Theres a little bit of lets wait and let [video, digital video-on-demand and Voice-over-Broadband] mature before we cannibalize revenue or provide a worse user experience."
But TollBridges Waldfogel thinks MSOs cant really afford to wait. "I think anybody who misses getting something out on the market by the first half of 2002 is going to miss competitive positioning time, especially relative to what the incumbent carriers may do with their Voice-over-Broadband activities in 2002," he says.