Optical/IP Networks

Europe Slips Toward SIP

Europe's carriers are committed to converged networks and SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) as the future platforms for their infrastructures and services, but the timeframe for introducing the technologies on a broad scale has not yet been determined.

That much was clear at last week's VON Europe conference, which was attended by as many service provider representatives as those from vendors, a clear sign that voice over IP (VOIP) is now at the heart of carriers' agendas as well as suppliers' marketing plans.

And while some of those European operators are still at the drawing-board stage, others have made significant progress with their plans. Among the Tier 1 carriers, the most aggressive has been BT Group plc (NYSE: BTY; London: BTA), which last week outlined its plans for a converged SIP-based network over which it will offer multimedia services to fixed and wireless users (see BT Moves Ahead With Mega Project). Not that BT has been bowled over by the vendor hype over SIP: It recognizes that, as a protocol, SIP is still in short trousers. Paul Reynolds, the CEO of BT Wholesale, the division in charge of building the carrier's 21st Century Network (21CN), says SIP is "the key technology for network integration," though there's still a lot of development work to be done. "But nothing stands still. What will help make SIP a more mature technology is the demand [from major carriers] for it to be a more robust play."

That demand is also spurring the adoption of SIP among companies hoping to win a slice of BT's capex spend on its next-generation network. Only today, Marconi Corp. plc (Nasdaq: MRCIY; London: MONI), which was last week named as the softswitch supplier for BT's consumer VOIP trials, announced it has added SIP capabilities to its softswitch (see Marconi Adds SIP to Softswitch).

But while carriers recognize the technical and financial benefits of SIP, as do analysts (see Heavy Reading Sees Money in SIP), not all are rushing to adopt it -- such as those already using legacy protocols to offer IP services like VOIP. In Italy, for example, triple-play pioneer FastWeb SpA, now merging with its parent eBiscom SpA, has recorded great success with its IP telephony services based on the protocol still most commonly used for VOIP, H.323 (see eBiscom Reports Strong Q1 Growth, FastWeb Piles On the Users, and eBiscom, FastWeb Merger Approved ).

So will FastWeb migrate to SIP? Voice services manager Paolo Tavazzani says that for the its 400,000 customers, "voice is still the benchmark, and customers demand 100 percent availability and toll quality," and that the H.323 gear has delivered that so far. But there are interoperability issues with H.323, so the carrier is looking at deploying SIP.

In Tavazzani's view, "no single protocol is enough." SIP is not yet mature, and there are problems with the SIP-over-ISDN connections. That's a matter of concern for FastWeb, because an ISDN link would most likely be used by non-FastWeb customers engaged in a videoconferencing session with a FastWeb customer. It's an issue that's likely to be resolved in the near future, and FastWeb's transition to SIP is a case of when rather than if, though there will be a mix of protocols for some time to come.

Tavazzani was also on hand to offer advice to other service providers about whether traditional voice or data networking staff should be given the responsibility for converged services such as VOIP. He says it's vital to have the involvement of staff with experience of traditional voice services, though it's equally important to have a team with both POTS and data service experience, which is the mix, he claims, that FastWeb has.

There was a smattering of other announcements at the event, the key ones being:

— Ray Le Maistre, International Editor, Boardwatch

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