Ever so carefully, cable operators are letting data trickle through their pipelines to rival Internet service providers in the first trials of "open access." The early forays are designed to blaze a technical trail some operators once thought impassable. But no one in the industry doubts that once the obstacles are cleared, the trickle could easily turn into a flash flood.
While open access promises to make the cable pipe more profitable in the long run, the immediate concern is how to keep the system from becoming overwhelmed by sporadic demands for voice, data, rapidly developing video-on-demand and standard entertainment services.
"Its a huge infrastructure that has to happen," says Amir Bassan-Eskenazi, chief executive of Fremont, Calif.-based router firm BigBand Networks. "We identified this opportunity three years ago after talking to the major operators."
"Todays cable network infrastructure has high capacity and two-way capability, which are key for supporting on-demand services," says Ran Oz, co-founder and chief technical officer of BigBand. "However, a number of obstacles block optimization and personalization of new interactive services to the mass market."
BigBands solution to the conflicting demands is its Broadband Multimedia-Service Routers, a new class of router that routes audio, data and video in their native formats for mass-market consumption.
As BigBand develops its router lineup, other companies such as nCube and SeaChange are addressing the issue of scalability with servers that will allow the cable networks to sell video-on-demand.
The open access push creates another market for routers that can link the former dedicated cable pipeline to multiple Internet providers.
"Its going to take a lot of work," says Louisa Mercia, head of AT&Ts open access trial in Boulder, Colo. "Its not a question of hitting a barrier we cant overcome, but a question of how long it will take."
With AT&T, Comcast and Time Warner Cable all trying out open access to multiple Internet service providers, companies in the routing business are preparing for a major new market.
Using the traditional cable equipment, operators only had to connect their customers to their own headends. Open access was a moot point because the gear could not provide bandwidth management, routing, provisioning and traffic grooming that services need to link customers to alternative ISPs.
"The key issue is the ability of the new technology to process information a lot faster, to route the packets much faster," Mercia says. "The existing router is software-based. The new technology has a lot of these processing capabilities within the hardware itself. Its basically new architecture."
RiverDelta Networks, a privately held Tewksbury, Mass., upstart sees the open access issue as a welcome mat for its new BSR 64000. Pitching the systems ability to scale for uneven demands and interact with any system, RiverDelta says its routers provide four times the performance of traditional systems at a quarter of the cost.
Cable Television Laboratories new DOCSIS 1.0 [Data Over Cable Service Interface Specifications] for transmission of data over a cable network is an advance that makes open access possible. With DOCSIS 1.1 now in development and a new technology called PacketCable that will allow new services over cable, the demand for more equipment such as routers and servers is certain to grow.
Using the existing cable modem infrastructure, PacketCable networks will use Internet Protocol to allow multimedia services, such as IP telephony, multimedia conferencing, interactive gaming and general multimedia applications.
With PacketCable, operators expect to offer several new services, including more efficient telephone service at lower cost.