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Christmas in June

Jun 08, 20044 mins
Cellular NetworksSystem ManagementTelecommunications Industry

Every industry moves to its own beat and works off its own calendar. For U.S. telecommunications service providers, Christmas comes in June at the Supercomm trade show, which puts us right smack dab in the middle of the big selling season. At least this year, the show is Chicago, where June weather often has a Christmas feel.

But just as every Christmas has its hot new toys, every Supercomm has its trendy technologies, its universal buzzwords and its vendor debates that border on religious wars. This year is no exception. And in the few weeks before the fat guy goes down the chimney – okay, before the doors open onto the trade show floor -the competition for attention is as frenzied as the pre-Christmas bustle. Only most of these packages are wrapped in gray or beige metal.

For example, there is the colossal competition to be the vendor of choice for delivering multiple types of data services in the most cost-effective way possible. Companies such as Cisco and Juniper already do this and are acquiring and developing new technologies to do it even better in the future. Meanwhile, there are industry stalwarts including Alcatel, Nortel, Redback Networks and Tellabs, who want into this fray, not to mention start-ups including Hammerhead Systems and Laurel Networks, who arguably defined this whole multi-service space more than two years ago.

Because this is the service provider market, however, it doesn’t do to just have a bunch of companies chasing one product space, each claiming unique values to their products. Oh no, that’s much too straightforward.

The players listed above would use what are called multi-service products to offer new data services, including IP-VPNs and Ethernet, as well as legacy frame relay and ATM services.

Well, that’s clearly just a waste of money – or so argues Riverstone Networks and – gee, this name again – Alcatel, both of whom are bringing new Ethernet-specific systems to Supercomm ’04, claiming that in many cases, service providers shouldn’t bother integrating legacy and new Ethernet services in areas where the latter are growing rapidly, such as in the metro space.

For Alcatel, this strategy is something akin to having Furbies AND Tickle-Me-Elmo on your store shelves – you’ve got something for everyone.

But this is not the only technology war raging. There’s also the fiber vs. copper battle.

In one corner stand companies such as Calix Networks, Occam Networks, Celite Systems and Pedestal Networks, to name a few, to argue that Bell companies aren’t replacing their copper networks anytime soon. So if they want to offer video to compete with cable companies, they have to do it over copper.

These companies have working systems that deliver double-digit megabits of bandwidth to individual homes, enough to support at least one and probably more channels of High-Definition TV, which is now taking off (or so they say) along with high-speed Internet access and voice service, or what is commonly called the Triple Play.

And they argue, quite effectively, that telephone companies cannot ignore the millions of copper access lines that exist today.

Oh yeah? And why not?

For the serious bandwidth service, only fiber will do, which is why AFC, Alcatel, Amedia Networks, Hitachi, Wave 7 and more are bringing brightly wrapped fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) systems to Supercomm. Actually, AFC is the Alcatel of this bunch (although it’s being bought by Tellabs) because it has triple play systems of both the copper and fiber variety.

But even copper vs. fiber isn’t enough of an argument. Even within the FTTP community, there are the actives (Amedia is the latest) and the passives (AFC, Alcatel and more). The passives use distribution systems without active electronics to carve up optical bandwidth, while the actives use largely Ethernet-based distribution center.

Both say their systems are cheaper and more reliable.

And then there are the wireless access options….

The technology battles rarely shake out such that one side is completely wrong and the other is completely right. Even though IP won the protocol wars with ATM, the latter is widely deployed in service provider networks because it was ready, willing and able to support their initial ADSL services, while IP-systems were not. So choices often come down to a matter of timing and application.

For equipment vendors, however, the timing may finally be working in their favor. After two years of coal in their stockings, there are signs of a turnaround in telecom. Of course, like Santa, those near-sightings are legend, and not always accurate.