Qwest Communications International has made a $100 million commitment to migrate its old circuit-switched network to next-generation packet-switched gear, but it may be a while before the economics make sense and the other big carriers follow.
When Ma Bell was carved up in 1984, Qwest, then U S West, was left with a sprawling region filled with small cities, mountains and tumbleweeds. The advantage of managing what was considered the worst of the Bell territories is that there has been just enough growth in the 14-state region to necessitate a network upgrade, but not so much that the carrier needs to maintain separate data and voice networks.
"It doesnt surprise me that Qwest is first," said Christine Hartman, a Probe Research analyst who watches the voice-over-packet market. "Switch replacement historically hasnt started with the big cities. They probably arent replacing 1AEES switches, but replacing DMS 10s and smaller switches. In larger cities, they can justify separate voice and data infrastructure. In the smaller cities, the economics for combining the two make sense."
Qwest began the conversion in Boise, Idaho, and has promised "aggressive packet-switched network deployments" in Albuquerque, N.M.; Denver; Minneapolis; Phoenix; Salt Lake City; and Seattle. Although the migration is an important step toward delivering integrated Internet, voice and data services over IP, moving to a packet-switched network at first will only improve the networks ability to transport voice calls.
Qwest could not make anyone available all last week to comment for this story.
"From the customer perspective, IP services make great sense," said Steve Peloso, vice president and general manager of Masergy Communications Western Region. "But the incumbent carriers and the regional Bells are all using assets that are bought and paid for and not necessarily upgradable to IP. Upgrading to IP might require forklift changes and major and complex changes to billing and provisioning systems. On the networks that exist today, theres a lot of bandwidth to be sold, but they push old product. Most carriers today are not in position to [provide] a high-speed, IP-specific, fully converged service offering.
"People need to sell what they built, but IP is the future and the future is here," Peloso said. "They cannot not do something."
Masergy is a year-old carrier that provides converged IP services over a native-IP backbone. The company owns points of presence in the U.S. and Europe, and leases transport capacity on Level 3 Communications optical network.
AT&T has talked about migrating to an all-packet switched network, but spokesman Dave Johnson said the intelligence features - such as toll-free call routing - that the giant carrier counts on in its switched environment have not yet been replicated in the IP world. "Will it come some day? Sure it will," he said. "If we were having this conversation 18 to 24 months from now, the tone would be very different."
AT&T also doesnt have much economic incentive to merge its data and voice networks into a single IP network. The company handles about 300 million voice calls each business day, and has seen its IP data traffic boom by 200 percent per year.
But packetizing the network may be a regional Bells best defense against interlopers that would cherry-pick their best customers, said Sue Spradley, president of Nortel Networks carrier Voice-over-IP unit. Qwest is using Nortel gear in its IP conversion.
"How do you make a big elephant dance? Give them the ability to packetize their network," Spradley said. "When they start to packetize their network, it means they are open to the service capabilities that can be driven over the network to the enterprise, large carrier or Centrex customer."