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Pumping ION: Sprint's CEO talks up the carrier's new net


By Denise Pappalardo

Amidst much fanfare, Sprint Corp. CEO William Esrey in June debuted the carrier's Integrated On-Demand Network (ION) plan on Broadway. ION is the company's effort to integrate its voice and data networks on one cohesive ATM backbone. Esrey recently sat down with Network World Senior Editor Denise Pappalardo to talk about how Sprint plans to deliver on its ION promises.

Why should business users be excited about Sprint's ION plans?

Business users now are running multiple types of networks. ION offers them the ability to get rid of all that in a very cost-effective way. You're paying for one network, and you're on the Sprint backbone that's basically offering unlimited bandwidth that you can access on demand.

Whether it's a business or a residential customer, with a click of the mouse they can run their network, they can analyze [how it is performing] and they can make high-speed data transfers. Another aspect is the quality they're getting, because they're now part of this nationwide network that has been built with [Synchronous Optical Network] SONET rings. I won't call it perfect, but it's darn close to it.

What is it about Sprint's long-term plans with ION that makes the company the service provider for business users over AT&T, MCI or WorldCom?

You'd have to ask [those carriers], because I'm barely qualified to speak for us, let alone for them (jokingly, laughs). I've seen some of the comments from AT&T that "Oh, we can do a similar type of thing." Yes, people can get a point-to-point ATM network today [that carries voice, data and video traffic]. But that's like a private line network that you use for that purpose, between however many points you're going to buy. That's a very different concept than converting your whole network infrastructure. Some of the emerging carriers are basically building data networks that are IP-based. They handle voice, but not with the quality that people are used to. We integrate voice and video. You can't tell the difference between a voice call over our circuit-switched network or the new ION network - the quality's equivalent.

How will you bring ION services to users around the country when you have to make deals with local exchange carriers everywhere to collocate your equipment in their central offices?

You have to work hard at it. There are about 100 million households in the U.S. Roughly 30 to 35 million of those households are ION-qualified users, the types of people that want more than just one line and that type of thing. There are 26,000 local central offices in the country. Four thousand of those central offices would get to about 20 to 22 million households. Two thousand central offices get you to about half of those ION-qualified customers, about 16 million households.

What's your actual deployment strategy?

We will be deploying DSLAMs [digital subscriber line access multiplexers] and will collocate them at central offices. You get the unbundled local loop from the LEC, which they're required to do under the law, and then you put in the DSLAM, or basically the interface, and you're right on our network. We put a Cisco box in the customer's house and then that customer is literally on our backbone network. They're on full-time, all the time.

Has Sprint committed to using cable networks and fixed wireless technology as local access options for ION services?

We're looking at these technologies. Cable modems need a two-way cable plant, so that means [the technology] can't be used everywhere. But the cable modem technology works just fine with us.

When we put our box on the customer's premise, what is in that last mile, as long as it's got the bandwidth, doesn't make any difference to us. XDSL gives us bandwidth, the cable modem gives us bandwidth, and certain types of fixed wireless gives us bandwidth.

How will you price bandwidth-on-demand under ION?

We haven't decided fully how we're going to do it. You have a lot of options, some of which are confusing when you look at historical [pricing schemes]. With legacy networks, whatever you [the customer] were doing, you were tying up facilities. In the ION network, you don't tie up anything until you do something. You get facilities dedicated to you for that instant, and then they're freed up [afterward].

So [there is dramatically more] sharing of the network facilities. How you bill for services really becomes an interesting exercise.

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