Optical/IP Networks

Is Sprint Rethinking MPLS?

Sprint Corp. (NYSE: FON) is softening its previous skeptical stance on Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS), driven by its recently announced efforts to expand globally (see Sprint Expands IP Services).

In a conference call with industry analysts about its IP expansion late Friday, one executive left the door open for MPLS after he was questioned about its popularity in Europe, where the protocol's caught on big.

"Recognizing the need for MPLS VPNs... in terms of implementing those types of features, [we're] certainly looking at that..." said Barry Tishgart, Sprint's director of data product marketing. He added that he "didn't want to go much farther" in clarifying his point.

This is considerably more waffling than Tishgart did last winter, when he insisted Sprint was ready to tackle the European market without bending on MPLS (see Sprint Spurns MPLS for Global VPNs).

Tishgart maintained last week that Sprint's adoption of Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol, version 3, and MPLS are two sides of the same virtual routing coin. He didn't argue that Sprint's approach is more efficient than MPLS. And therein lies a new, more amiable stance.

Sprint has stood apart among large carriers on MPLS. Rival interexchange carriers like AT&T Corp. (NYSE: T) are pushing the protocol hard, and so are the regional Bells (see AT&T Talks Up IP VPNs and BellSouth Unveils MPLS Backbone).

Officially, Sprint's position is unchanged: MPLS won't be included in Sprint's core IP network, says spokeswoman Barbara Mellott.

But Mellott says Sprint now "is looking into" a solution for including MPLS in edge networks. She won't name prospective vendors, but Sprint's primary supplier of IP gear is Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO).

Cisco is also the key supplier to British Telecommunications plc (BT) (NYSE: BTY; London: BTA), which has been especially aggressive in its endorsement of the protocol (see BT Boosts US Backbone).

Cisco wouldn't comment for this article.

It remains to be seen whether Tishgart's comment Friday was about supporting MPLS VPNs with a new edge solution -- or whether he's really open to using MPLS more pervasively, starting in Europe.

But analysts say that as Sprint expands its network, a new approach seems inevitable. "I wouldn't be surprised if they indeed have to change their position," says Richard Webb of Infonetics Research Inc. "MPLS is more firmly ensconced in Europe than any other continent... When Sprint made the announcement about launching in Europe with non-MPLS IP VPNs, it was met with a wall of apathy and indifference, and skepticism in the press. It was a strange thing for Sprint to do. In Europe, there are very few operators who aren't seriously behind MPLS."

One observer says the issue is really one of marketing. "Sprint can prove its network doesn't need MPLS, but it needs to explain why over and over again," says Brian Washburn, senior analyst at Current Analysis. The carrier suffers from a perceptual disadvantage when it can't fill in that checkmark on customer proposals, even if those customers have fallen for MPLS "hype," Washburn says.

— Mary Jander, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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