Smaller Carriers Go Big With VPLS

With Thursday's proposal from the Office of Communications (Ofcom), BT Group plc's (NYSE: BT; London: BTA) 21CN plans remain on track, but the U.K.’s smaller carriers are touting their own versions of the IP-based next-generation network now, with an eye towards rolling out new services like Ethernet virtual private LAN service (VPLS).

VPLS, a Layer 2 VPN technology very much in its infancy, allows operators to provide wide-area, multipoint Ethernet with the support and scaleability of traditional services like Frame Relay and ATM. Viatel Holding (Bermuda) Ltd. (OTC: VTLAF) and NTL Group Ltd. (Nasdaq: NTLI) have already launched VPLS services, and Ethernet startup Exponential-e Ltd. plans to roll out its NGN this summer. Cable & Wireless plc (NYSE: CWP) and Telewest Communications Networks plc (Nasdaq: TWSTY) have named vendors for their next-gen networks and are in the process of rolling them out.

Light Reading’s global Ethernet Services Directory is tracking the appearance of VPLS services, of which there are just five among the 459 offerings listed so far. These come from Viatel, Global Internetworking Inc., ISIS Multimedia Net GmbH & Co. KG, Completel S.A.S. (Paris: CPT), and Virtela Communications Inc., which acts as a network aggregator. NTL's MPLS service also supports VPLS.

(To view these entries in the directory, see: , , , , , and ).

In addition, Broadwing Communications LLC and OnFiber Communications Inc. announced at Supercomm they have interconnected their networks to offer VPLS (see Broadwing, OnFiber Launch VPLS).

Alternative operators are keen to talk up the advantages of not having a large legacy network when it comes to next-generation services: “We’re trying to get first-mover advantage from technology that’s available today,” says Exponential-e's chief technology officer Adrian Hobbins. BT plans to launch new services over its 21CN in 2006 and start migration to the new network in 2007.

Exponential-e launched in 2002 with a London-based, Ethernet-over-MPLS metro network, which it has expanded to 50 towns in the U.K. and interconnected with partners abroad (see Exponential-e Extends GigE Network ). “We’ve been building MPLS VPNs by building point-to-point VPNs using the Martini draft, where the Ethernet frame drops in and out at the ends,” says Hobbins. The problem with this method is that it doesn’t scale well, he says, and creates multiple tunnels for multipoint networks -- a problem solved by using VPLS.

Another attraction is the ability to ramp up connection speeds on what is currently a 1-gigabit network. “One of the things we wanted to achieve was for it to be 10-Gig ready... We’re seeing more and more queries for full-gigabit services.”

Since applications are driving the demand for higher Ethernet capacity, operators are keen to offer customers different bands of QOS -- perhaps one for voice and video, where sub-millisecond response times and jitter-sensitivity are a priority, a lower band for other applications, and at the bottom, general Internet surfing and email where latency is less important. The customer can then choose the most appropriate grade for the type of applications they’re running.

VPLS also allows the network to be application-aware, “so if the customer isn’t segmenting traffic, we’re able to classify the traffic using multiple techniques, for example DiffServ tagging, to identify different flows,” says Hobbins.

“The final thing that glues those things together is OA&M,” or operations, administration, and management, including real-time monitoring, granular SLA settings, and network diagnostic tools. Exponential-e is using Alcatel (NYSE: ALA; Paris: CGEP:PA) equipment, which, according to Hobbins, is "at the forefront" in offering the latest generation of OA&M tools (see Exponential-e Picks Alcatel for VPLS).

The emergence of VPLS technologies gives the advantage to operators that are at the point of expanding or upgrading their networks in some way. Carriers that have made the switch to Ethernet more recently are already finding the technology moving ahead. "If you made your investment last year, your box is not likely to be VPLS-capable," Hobbins says.

— Nicole Willing, Reporter, Light Reading

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