Virtela Communications is a Greenwood, Colo., start-up that manages more than 100 ISPs worldwide to provide its IP-based VPN services to enterprise customers including Documentum and Extreme Networks. I recently interviewed Vab Goel, Virtela's chairman and CEO and a partner at Norwest Venture Partners, about the state of the ISP market. In the next two ISP News Reports, I'll present excerpts from our conversation.Q. Virtela manages more than 100 ISPs worldwide, with AT&T, Level 3 and Qwest being your primary carriers here in the U.S. I thought that because of Virtela's unique network infrastructure, you'd have an interesting perspective on the issues and trends affecting the Internet backbone. What are you seeing?A. What we're really seeing from a trend perspective is that the customer service and support from carriers is at an all-time low. The reason is that the whole downturn has lasted for a very long time, and all of [the carriers] are still going through a lot of realignment and re-strategizing. A lot of companies are just coming out of bankruptcy. It is a very, very tough task to get carriers to respond faster when there are outages. I think it's significantly harder than it was five years ago.The other interesting thing that's happening in the marketplace from an enterprise perspective is that the LAN and the WAN are integrating. Take a look at how virus attacks happen. In the old days, it was denial-of-service attacks where someone outside was attacking you. Now most of the attacks happen when one PC inside the network attacks the LAN. This is creating a huge challenge for both the carriers and the enterprise in terms of where the lines of demarcation are.Q. Your network sounds like an incredibly complex undertaking. How do you manage so many ISPs?A. In the Virtela network operations center, more than 90% of the people have masters' degrees in engineering. Many people speak multiple languages. The world has changed for the enterprise. Even small companies have sales offices or development centers outside. If your network goes down in Japan, and you try to call the Japanese carrier in the middle of the night, it's hard to find a guy in the network operations center that speaks English. One of the things we have evolved over time is that we have people who can support multi-continent customers and who speak multiple languages.Q. It's interesting that you see your people rather than your systems as the differentiating factor in your network management.A.\u00a0 There is no magic bullet today. This is unfortunate. If your circuit goes down in China, your system can tell you that, but you still have to call the PTT there. Virtela does have very strong tools that tell you right away if a line goes down, but as you deliver service in different countries you have to get to the last mile.It's also important that you have strong SLAs. When we are selecting ISPs we look at: Do they allow us to do online billing? Do they allow us to do provisioning electronically? Do they have escalation processes? We look at who has the best support.Q. What is your biggest challenge in managing your network infrastructure across that many ISPs?A. The biggest challenge was putting together the back-end systems, which are application aware. Virtela is basically providing the world's largest enterprise video network. We have lots of customers that have thousands of users around the world for online video conferencing. In the old world, the carrier didn't care what applications were running on the network as long as the network was up and you could ping from one router to another router. But now, as enterprises are moving voice to the 'Net and moving video to the 'Net, IT managers want to know why their application doesn't work. Is it the LAN, is it the voice-over-IP phone or is it the network? And if it's the network, they want to know where the problem is in the network such as the endpoint or the LAN.The second challenge is people. It's always very hard to find the right mindset in people. At the end of the day, there's not a huge difference between the Sprint, MCI or AT&T backbones. They all use routers from the same vendors. The difference is in the services they're offering and the support they're providing. The question is, if my network goes down, can they help?