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MCI service rollouts hit variety of snags

Mar 22, 20046 mins
Cisco SystemsNetwork SecurityVoIP

MCI customers already tested by the company’s bankruptcy scandal now are looking at significant delays in receiving promised upgrades that cover integrated VPN and VoIP services.

MCI customers already tested by the company’s bankruptcy scandal now are looking at significant delays in receiving promised upgrades that cover integrated VPN and VoIP services.

MCI first laid out its Convergence Networking product strategy about a year ago. In that plan, the company said it would introduce new Secure Internet Gateway services and offer enhancements to its MCI Advantage VoIP offerings.

But those services are arriving six to 12 months later than expected.

“If they hang the market with commitment dates and then don’t meet those dates, they run the risk of damaging customer confidence,” says Bryan Van Dussen, a director at The Yankee Group.

MCI introduced its Secure Internet Gateway (SIG) service last May and promised to follow up with two specific enhancements. The carrier met its original goal of supporting dial-in VPN access within MCI’s network, rather than requiring users to connect to a Nortel Contivity device at the customer premises.

But as the company prepares to emerge from bankruptcy next month, it is falling short on providing customers with the ability to marry multiple VPN services using SIG. The service is expected to allow a customer to connect his Private IP, Dedicated IP VPN, frame relay and ATM networks using SIG to support secure IPSec tunneling across all environments. MCI says it has run into a technical snag.

“Interworking [IPSec] tunnel monitoring became our primary challenge,” says James Williams, senior manager for data network engineering at MCI. “The tunnels provide a path through the public Internet to our network to reach the [customer premises equipment]. That tunnel needs to be monitored to know if it’s up or down.”

MCI soon realized this task was impossible because of proprietary IPSec implementations from the three vendors it’s working with to support this service. Those vendors are Cisco, Lucent and Nortel.

MCI turned to the IETF, which was working on a draft specification to address the issue dubbed Dead Peer Detection. In February the IETF issued RFC 3706, an informational protocol document that outlines a method for network administrators to determine if an IPSec tunnel is no longer connected, says Paul Hoffman, director of the VPN Consortium. Dead Peer Detection is one of several keep-alive mechanisms used with IPSec so a carrier, in the case of MCI, would know instantly if a tunnel goes down.

All three vendors are working on new code that will support RFC 3706. “We expect to see code within the month from the three vendors,” MCI’s Williams says.

Nortel says code that supports RFC 3706 for its Shasta 5000 BSN, which is the gateway device, is expected next month. Cisco, the author of the draft, currently supports RFC 3706 in its VPN gear. But Lucent isn’t expecting to deliver RFC 3706 support in its VPN products until May.

MCI has decided to move ahead, temporarily, without RFC 3706.

“We will be able to [offer a] complete product interworking suite through IPSec tunnels, but not through a standards-based method in April,” says Jim DeMerlis, MCI’s vice president for data and IP services. The carrier will then migrate to standards-based support once it has a chance to test all of the software. 

Waiting for advanced services

MCI has hit a variety of snags as it has tried to roll out its converged services since last year.
Service Initial promiseBlame for delay Current promise
Secure Internet Gateway Private IPOctober 2003 Interoperability between multivendor IPSec devices.April 2004
Secure Internet Gateway Network FirewallYear-end 2003Focusing on SIG Private IP support.Year-end 2004
MCI Advantage over Private IPJuly 2003Ensuring service works well before rollout.March 2004
MCI Advantage outside U.S.Year-end 2003Put energies toward refining domestic offering. Fall 2004

And while MCI is late delivering on its promised schedule, its competitors also are not offering a service that lets customers link all of their VPN and data services seamlessly. AT&T says it will have this service available toward the end of the month, but the carrier has not announced the offering.

MCI’s third phase of SIG, which was slated for availability at the end of last year, includes a network-based firewall for an added level of security. MCI now says this feature will roll out by year-end.

“Phase two pushed out all activities. Getting interworking out the door was our first priority,” Williams says. “We have continued to work on the firewall behind the scenes, but maybe not with as much energy.”

MCI also has lost some footing with its MCI Advantage VoIP services for business customers. The carrier said last May that it would support MCI Advantage over its Private IP service by July 2003. But soon after its assertion in May, the carrier changed the delivery date to year-end internally. Now that feature is expected to be delivered this month.

AT&T announced a similar service last year and says it’s on target to deliver its Network VoIP VPN service in May. Sprint expects to announce VoIP services over its SprintLink Frame Relay service later this year.

MCI also promised to deliver its MCI Advantage service internationally by the end of last year.

“That date was moved,” says Sharon Kasimow, director of MCI Advantage. “There is a finite amount of capital and engineering resources. We have to prioritize products.”

“We wanted to do some things domestically and determined to pull our service together and tighten it up before taking it overseas, rather than have a lesser product in multiple countries,” Kasimow says.

MCI moved quality-of-service support from the customer premises, where it was using a traffic-shaping device from Sitara, into the network. “There were bandwidth restraints with the Sitara device,” Kasimow says. The network-based mechanism, which MCI built internally, allows for traffic prioritization, whereas the Sitara device focused more on the size of packets, she says.

Now, MCI Advantage is expected to roll out overseas by early fall, she says.

AT&T says it’s offering business-grade VoIP services in 40 countries. Sprint says it’s planning to launch a suite of business VoIP services later this year.

“[MCI] needs to get out in front of the public to show they are an innovator, but they also are very constrained on resources,” says David Willis, analyst at Meta Group. “They have lost 40% of their business over the last two years.”

Earlier this month MCI restated its revenue for 2000, 2001 and 2002. The carrier had revenue of $39.3 billion, $37.7 billion and $32.2 billion, respectively. And revenue continued to drop. The carrier reported revenue of $24.1 billion in 2003, and that was before announcing the sale of its Latin American division Embratel, which made up 11.2% of its annual revenue in 2002. “This is not the time to lose credibility with your customers,” Willis says.