Can Customers Take Back the Network?

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Enterprises of the world, unite: Hang up on your phone companies and build your own long-distance networks!

Insanity -- or inspiration? At least two speakers at the Opticon 2002 trade show here Tuesday say the latter.

Michael O'Dell, former UUnet chief scientist, maintains it's time telecom customers started thinking about taking their fiber needs into their own hands. What's more, he says emerging ultra long haul technology will help them do it.

Yes, you read it right. That's ultra long haul (ULH), the segment considered by most in the telecom industry to be a dead spot. Indeed, weakness in demand for long-haul gear and its ULH subsegment has been cited as key to a range of recent decisions by various vendors to abandon development in the segment altogether (see Nortel to Cut Ultra Long Haul? and Agere's Exit From Opto: Sad but Sensible).

But O'Dell thinks folks should take another look. "Of the technologies that contain the potential to be disruptive, I think it's ultra long haul," O'Dell says.

In his keynote speech here Tuesday morning, O'Dell held forth that advances in ULH transport systems have made long-distance fiber plants easier to manage and less expensive to build.

O'Dell, now president of Compass Rose Labs, a telecom consultancy, says the "rocket science" that used to make it tough to set up and manage long-distance networks has been built into ULH systems, making it easier to "build [networks] once and back away."

An oversimplification? Probably. But O'Dell's point is that given the glut of unused fiber and simpler long-haul optical gear that can be used to light that capacity, the economics of operating a long-distance data network have changed. To hear him tell it, anyone with ambition and some deep pockets, or any city government with enough resources, can forgo buying network capacity from the nearest incumbent phone company.

"More people will be able to operate a fiber plant, if we all live long enough," he asserts. "The prospect of seeing municipal groups form consortiums to operate long-haul networks is possible. Whether they will, I don't know, but it is possible. The point is that business models that weren't feasible before can become viable with this improved ULH technology."

The telecom industry spends lots of time building technology like wave division multiplexing (WDM), which lets several pieces of equipment share the same fiber pair, O'Dell says. Perhaps people, businesses, and governments should stop thinking about sharing and instead start running their own fiber facilities.

Actually such developments are already taking place.

One group of nine local government agencies in Oregon built a metro DWDM network with no help from the incumbent carrier, according to a Tuesday afternoon talk by Dan Mulholland, the telecommunications manager for the Lane [County, Ore.] Council of Governments’ telephone consortium, and Darrell Jones, the lead systems programmer for the Eugene, Ore. regional information system.

After spending about $300,000 on acquiring fiber and a little more than that in equipment costs, the network now serves three school districts, two cities, two public utilities, a county, a community college, a university, and a transportation district, Jones says. The network offers more than 16 lambdas to more than 30 locations along the fiber route.

"The phone companies did nothing in our network," says Mulholland. "And there are plenty of efforts like ours going on elsewhere.... There is a world out there beyond what Qwest Communications International Inc. [NYSE: Q] says or does," he says.

O'Dell, too, was critical of the big phone companies for being slow to act and innovate, likening them to communist agencies where innovation comes from "a Department of New Ideas."

"They're zeniths of centralized planning," he says.

At one point, O'Dell suggested splitting the assets of regional Bell operating companies (RBOCs), leaving their access networks open to competition.

"But listen to me at your own risk," he cautioned attendees. "I'm crazy."

— Phil Harvey, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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