The Dwindling Case for Saving TDM
Much of the talk around replacing TDM switches has focused on the many benefits of IP transformation -- new service opportunities, fixed-mobile convergence and more efficient and lower-cost network operations.
But there's an increasingly urgent catalyst for TDM switch replacement projects that doesn't come with any feel-good factor: The rapid retirement of TDM-trained personnel and the shrinking availability of spares and software patches for these massive voice systems, many of which are finishing their third decade of service.
Already, carriers are turning to a refurbished equipment market for spares, says Jim Hodges, senior analyst with Heavy Reading . In a recent Light Reading webinar, IP Evolution for Mobile and Fixed Core Networks, Hodges noted that "it's unclear how long this will be a viable option."
The circuit-switched brain drain is a critical issue, though, as carrier staff with TDM expertise find themselves increasingly in the firing line. AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) cut 5,900 jobs during the first three months of 2011, many in the sagging landline business, while Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) has shed 16,000 workers during the past 12 months, many of whom are older employees taking voluntary retirement packages. Other U.S. service providers are also trimming their workforces, notably CenturyLink Inc. (NYSE: CTL), which has absorbed Embarq and closed the acquisition of Qwest on April 1. (See Merger a Boon to CenturyLink Business? and Qwest, CenturyLink Plan $22.4B Marriage.)
Those opting for early retirement are taking with them much of the expertise used to run the Class 5 circuit switches, which have been the lifeblood of the telecom industry until recently. Newer employees are more likely to be trained in IP and Ethernet.
"The telco skill sets are changing," Hodges says.
To be sure, new features and the potential cost savings of newer technology (including reduced power and environmental costs) are still the primary drivers behind migration strategies. The older switches require six to eight times the power of next-generation systems, Hodges estimates. If power tariffs increase, as expected, to cover the cost of building the smart grid, "we will be reaching a critical turning point" when maintaining older switches becomes cost-prohibitive.
But there are also risks and complications to the TDM replacement process that may slow this process. Maintaining existing emergency services and ensuring network synchronization are reasons given to go slow on the switch away from TDM. (See Ethernet Europe: Busting the Backhaul Bottleneck .)
But telcos are increasingly aware that while maintaining the status quo is usually the safe path, keeping their services tied to ageing TDM switches carries its own set of risks.
"Most of the interest is in delivery of new services," says Mark Woollam, senior director, technical solutions, at Genband Inc. "But there is a growing awareness of the risks association with some of the ageing equipment."
— Carol Wilson, Chief Editor, Events, Light Reading