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March 1999

Looking to SS7: IP Networks Get Smart


IP-based telecommunication services have wisened up over the last three years, taking advantage of the immense bandwidth and resiliency of the Internet to provide functions familiar to consumers at extremely competitive prices with high versatility. Some of these functions include value-added services such as roaming, fax, and telephony.

However, many companies have quickly discovered that efficiently integrating these services into a complete and reliable product offering requires an intelligent network. Much like the PSTN relies on Signal System 7 (SS7) to enable standardized call setup, routing, control, and vertical services, IP networks need an intelligent layer to improve performance and support the introduction of new services.

Creating an intelligent network requires complex signaling and significant information exchange. By adding an intelligent layer, networks are able to offload Internet services from busy PSTN switches and reduce congestion. Intelligent networks offer service providers a flexible operational environment that can support multiple IP services - including remote access, Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), phone, fax, video conferencing, e-commerce, traditional dial-up services, and Web hosting.

The addition of intelligence to IP networks also allows the use of metered services, and intelligent platforms typically provide provisioning and usage data gathering capabilities through an integrated billing system. These integrated systems handle a variety of pricing and discount structures to offer services to subscribers through a single account and bill.

Another key benefit of SS7-like intelligence and IP interworking is that services requiring cooperation with other services or systems at different sites can rely on built-in capabilities of the hybrid system to determine the most appropriate "termination service" site, and connect to the site to complete the service.

An ISP can also accept service requests from the subscribers of other service providers. Efforts are underway in various standards bodies, such as ETSI TIPHON (the European Telecommunications Standards Institute's Telecommunications and Internet Protocol Harmonization Over Networks technical body) to define a uniform way to determine the authenticity of subscribers and the services to be provided. This immediately increases the number of service providers offering a given service, and dramatically expands the addressable universe of customers.

IP networks have demonstrated the capability to carry and distribute information of many diverse types, including data, voice, audio, video, and variations of these types of information. This gives information service providers substantial opportunities to develop information products that can be deployed on the IP network.

Services may be offered by ISPs or telcos that own and operate equipment and facilities, and can also be offered by "virtual" ISPs that do not own facilities, but resell the services. A virtual ISP that has subscribers from traditional, non-IP businesses can offer retail services without owning any of the equipment or facilities, which benefits both the consumers and ISPs. For example, an access provider offers Internet access - an originating service, while a terminating service provider offers low-cost termination to originating service providers or virtual ISPs.

Either a retail service provider or a virtual ISP may offer these services to end users and take care of account management, customer care, billing, and other account service activities. Both types of service providers may use wholesale service providers that actually develop and deploy the hardware and software necessary to implement services.

Most service providers today are challenged by the need to constantly innovate to retain existing customers and attract new ones, thus reducing costly churn. As intelligence is added to network devices (both IP and intelligent network), it facilitates the addition of functionality, but also facilitates interoperability among networks. This interoperability depends on the unrestricted exchange of customer and service data. As SS7-like functionality has served to carry much of this information for the intelligent network - it is also expected to provide much of the infrastructure needed for efficient interoperability.

Although there has been much discussion on how SS7 can be used to facilitate improved interconnectivity between traditional wireline networks and Internet-based networks, there has been relatively little progress in defining exactly how SS7 and the Internet-based services will interoperate. Vendors of Internet telephony equipment are just now beginning to bring SS7-capable hardware to the marketplace, with commercial deployment about to begin.

The integration of intelligence into IP networks is expected to proceed rapidly with several drivers. Improved service will certainly help retain customers, additional services will attract new customers, and reduced costs and improved efficiency will help boost profit margins for all service providers.

As facilities-based service providers deploy the new IN-IP hybrid network systems into their networks, those able to take advantage of the newly deployed functionality and services will also benefit. And systems already in place to facilitate customers' access to services when roaming between networks will increase in value.

Network-level authentication ensures that subscribers have ready access to any gateway within their service provider's network. It also provides the underlying technology for global roaming services. Global roaming provides local call access to long-distance telephone services and portable features even when subscribers travel outside the serving areas of their home providers.

It enables a network and settlement infrastructure with global connectivity, which keeps track of all the cross service charges, and credits or debits the service providers accordingly. This frees ISPs from the burden of managing deployment across multiple networks, and increases potential market penetration and revenue. It also supports a developing model of regional service providers interconnected and sharing services and customer access via third-party networks.

The roles of access service providers, origination service providers, termination service providers, virtual ISPs, and their contractual and financial relationships are clearly defined and supported. Services may be extended globally in a distributed, interoperating environment, providing account management and billing capabilities. This environment allows service providers to offer various IP services with rapid time to market, and an established settlement process ensures all debits and credits are properly applied.

With interoperability standards and SS7-like integration underway, plus improved bandwidth and deregulation, Internet telephony over an intelligent software platform is becoming a reality.

Dr. Hong Chen is chairman and CEO of GRIC Communications, Inc. GRIC is the global leader in delivering integrated, multiple IP-based services for carriers and ISPs. GRIC provides the technology that brings intelligence to the Internet through GRIC CSP (Convergent Services Platform). The company is headquartered in Milpitas, CA, with regional offices in Asia and Europe. For more information, visit the GRIC Web site at www.gric.com.

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