Qwest Heads for Convergence
Recently, Qwest Communications International Inc. (NYSE: Q) briefed Light Reading on its plans to merge all of its wide area networking traffic onto its Internet Protocol (IP) backbone. Specifically, Qwest says it will IP-enable Frame Relay and Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) services, so that they can be carried over its Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) backbone. Qwest isn’t the only carrier to start talking specifics. AT&T Corp. (NYSE: T) recently divulged its plan, which in some ways seems quite similar to Qwest’s (see AT&T’s New Gods). AT&T already offers IP-enabled Frame Relay and ATM services and plans to continue its migration to a fully converged network. Sprint Corp. (NYSE: FON) also is talking about convergence, but unlike AT&T and Qwest, it will not be using MPLS. Instead, it’s converging traffic straight onto IP.
“We are definitely hearing carriers talk about this more now,” says Vishal Sharma, a principal consultant with Metanoia Inc., a firm that consults equipment suppliers and carriers on network planning and design. “I think they are thinking about it more now, because they’re under pressure to do things more efficiently.”
Specifically, they are under pressure to cut costs, but at the same time offer services that are more reliable and more easily accessible.
“Customers want their links to stay up -- they don’t want to have to worry if its Frame Relay, ATM, or voice over IP,” says Dick Notebaert, chairman and CEO of Qwest. “They just want it to work."
Notebaert says that moving toward a converged backbone will allow Qwest to more efficiently and effectively sell services.
What Qwest is proposing is a new way of selling services to customers. Instead of selling customers a Frame Relay, an ATM, or an IP VPN (virtual private network) connection, the plan calls for finding out what the customer requirements are in terms of connection speeds, capacity, and remote access usage. Then the carrier can build a package of services to fill those needs. Some large companies may use a variety of services.
While this rhetoric sounds good now, the reality is that Qwest has a long way to go before it can become a reality. Currently, Qwest’s data network, like many other interexchange networks, is divided into two. One network carries ATM and Frame Relay traffic, while the other one carries IP VPN traffic. Qwest says it has already developed a five-year migration plan that will merge these two distinct networks. The first phase of this migration is expected to be completed in the second half of this year. Qwest says it will offer IP-enabled ATM and Frame Relay services via MPLS on its current network.
The company will then begin shifting those services to a merged network that will also share the same management and OSS. Eventually, by 2007 the migration is expected to be complete.
“However a customer wants to connect to our network, we’ll be able to sell them a service,” says Bob Schroeder, senior director of product management with Qwest. “All they’ll have to do is pick the speed.”
As for how Qwest plans on getting to this converged network, it's still being planned. It is already using MPLS on its Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) and Juniper Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: JNPR) routers for traffic engineering in the core of its IP network. It’s also using Nortel Networks Corp. (NYSE/Toronto: NT) Shasta gear to provide IP VPN services using IPSec tunneling and encryption. Schroeder says the company plans to continue using these technologies and will add MPLS encapsulated ATM and Frame Relay traffic onto the network, as well. He says there are currently no plans to offer Layer 3 MPLS VPNs based on RFC 2547 or Layer 2 MPLS VPNs based on Draft Martini.
“I think there has been a lot of hype surrounding MPLS VPNs,” says Schroeder. “I’ve never heard a customer call up and say, ‘I want an MPLS VPN.’ They just want a VPN that is reliable and gives them a reasonable sense of security.”
But he admits that Qwest is still evaluating its options and has not completely ruled out using MPLS VPNs in the future.
While Qwest and other carriers will likely try to squeeze as much as they possibly can out of their current equipment, they will also be in need of new gear like multiservice switches that can map access technologies onto the common MPLS backbone. Companies like Alcatel SA (NYSE: ALA; Paris: CGEP:PA), Cisco, Équipe Communications Corp., and Laurel Networks Inc., along with access equipment vendors like Turin Networks Inc., could benefit from this trend.
But Sharma says it could still be a while before many of these network plans come to fruition. He feels every carrier will be working at a different pace.
“There’s no magic formula that says if they converge their networks that they will cut costs,” he says. “There are costs associated with implementing these strategies. It might actually end up costing them more to put it all onto the same network.”
— Marguerite Reardon, Senior Editor, Light Reading