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June 1999

The Changing Face Of The Last Mile


How long did it take you to drive to work today? Has this time been increasing as the traffic worsens? Well, perhaps this situation will be aided by a very unlikely source — the Internet. You may say, what? How? I believe the future will see a significant increase in home access to online systems to drastically reduce the need for millions of people to drive to and from the office every day of the week.

Recently, on a trip from the Silicon Valley to Los Angeles, I couldn’t help but notice how much the scenery had changed from open land to houses and development. I was also amazed at how much traffic was caused by commuters traveling from one place to another. This was when and where I had a lot of time to think about emerging technologies and how they will change this situation.

I work from my home office about 70 percent of the time, with the rest of my time spent at the corporate office, on planes traveling abroad, or in meetings around the city. I am able to do this because I have access to the Internet, e-mail, a phone, and information needed to perform my job. I can discuss (using my regular analog phone connected to a PC interface device) e-mails, Web sites, customers, documents, spreadsheets, and other data simultaneously via the same analog, copper, two-wire connection to my home while online to my ISP. Of course, this connection could also be frame relay, ISDN, or another type, but this depends on cost issues, and whether the transmission is voice or data.

Like me, federal, state, and local governments will embrace this type of remote access as they struggle with pollution and the infrastructure costs of road maintenance and other issues such as quality of life. It is not hard to imagine a mandated phasing in of such programs for companies that could easily implement this type of activity. Of course, many jobs can not be performed remotely, such as just about any physical interaction job with resources. However, many of the jobs that even today may seem stuck at the office, could be performed at home just as easily with the proper technology and integrated systems.

There will need to be a slight paradigm shift as we tackle the change from face-to-face communications to face to video, or voice to voice. I was recently discussing this point with a colleague and we covered many advantages of face-to-face meetings such as nonverbal communications and the bonding and friendships that take place when all are at the office. And, of course there are the disadvantages of this — the wasted time in physically getting from one place to another, and then perhaps not having information necessary for the meeting. It was a fun discussion but did point out the need to study working practices in greater detail.

I am not going to go into quality of service issues, since those are many, technical, and better served in a different, and separate discussion, and more importantly — quality of service will come. Let’s start at the office, where most currently work and interact with others. Most interactions are to prioritize tasks, review, plan, converse on a specific piece of data, and gather or transmit information. This can be handled via phone at home, and those on the receiving end can be reached via cell phones, LAN/WAN, or directly on their desktop phones. Voice/Data switches (aka IP-PBXs) are already here, and can enable a total IP system at the office as well as connect remote workers via their ISPs.

These Voice/Data switches support functions such as call forward, call transfer, call pickup, follow on busy/no answer, call hunting, auto attendant, IVR, ACD, management, billing (CDR), security, etc. Voice/data switches don’t need to have a CTI link because all "switching" is handled by software IP control. Fault tolerant, redundant systems with zero downtime can be ensured by the same voice/data switches.

User information is transparent with a voice/data switch, so if the targeted person is at home for the day, that information is invisible to outside callers. The remote individual is connected at home via their PC’s modem, or another type of technology such as wireless local loop, a cable modem, a cable TV set-top box, ISDN, or frame relay. When the user receives a call via the IP system, the phone rings just like normal. This process takes care of the communication part of the work-at-home scenario.

In a typical day at the office, time is spent performing individual tasks using tools of the trade — which usually involve a computer and various applications these days. The same type of connections discussed above are used for these implementations — transmitting data, and using a voice/data switch. And it doesn’t matter to your ISP or LAN/WAN if the data is voice, data, video, or a combination. The core of the whole process is the IP nature of the formatted data packets.

Gigabit data transmission over copper twisted pair (basically the wiring in your home), is coming later this year. This will enable much broader applications for working at home like performing tasks on a home PC, then, while viewing the data, being able to call another person to discuss something. Since the call is over IP, workers can actually participate in a conference call, and simultaneously view and discuss the same video, Web page, or other type of data being discussed. In many cases, this type of activity is actually much more productive, efficient, and effective than collaborating in the office. Participants don’t need to walk around to locate someone for a meeting, and the time needed to cover many different issues and summon people at a moment’s notice is possible in seconds.

Coupled with expected developments for twisted pair wiring, there are many other bandwidth technologies being developed, and companies are laying pipeline so that the latency issues associated with the public access Internet will decrease, thereby opening up the inevitability of this type of working environment.

Security issues surrounding gateways, gatekeepers, and servers are being addressed by systems that can effectively protect against unwanted access to a PC while permitting qualified access. Servers working with these gateways and gatekeepers can provide a centralized form of remote-access authentication and accounting.

This technology is in operation throughout the world today in various forms. Some companies offer proprietary end-to-end solutions, while others offer open-platform devices for integration with leading component manufacturers. Many developers of hardware and software systems are cooperating and partnering to offer a more comprehensive product to the market. System integrators are collecting the various components and offering whole products to their customers, and this cooperation is exactly what the market needs. Until today, the market has been hungry for the potential of this technology, but because the technology is so new in all the various areas, each vendor has been busy mastering their specific system component(s). With increased cooperation by these various providers of applications, hardware devices, and software applications, those located in "The Last Mile" can benefit and move into the beginning of the next millennium embracing this exciting technology and all it has to offer.


Tom Curran is vice president of marketing and sales for ShelCad Communications.   ShelCad combines powerful CTI with plug-and-play technologies. The company designs, develops, and markets client-based products that offer open-system low-density solutions. ShelCad’s Hi-Phone, and new Hi-Phone PCMCIA products enable users to place calls via the Internet, network, or the PSTN using their analog telephones and a desktop or laptop computer. For more information, visit the company’s Web site at www.shelcad.com.

The Copper Rush Is On


The landmark Telecommunications Act was designed to open the U.S. telecommunications market to increased competition for long-distance and local exchange voice and data services. Unfortunately, the act is vaguely written, leaving many sections open to interpretation. This has led to legal skirmishes among Incumbent Local Exchange Carriers (ILECs), Inter-exchange Carriers (IXCs), Competitive Local Exchange Carriers (CLECs), and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) — with billions of dollars in potential revenues riding on the outcome.

At the center of the legal battle is a 14-point checklist that the ILECs must satisfy in order to be granted access to the $75 billion long-distance market they have coveted since divestiture in 1984. Each of the 14 points requires the ILECs to open up their network infrastructure, management systems, and operations support systems, so that other competitive carriers may gain fair access to the local exchange market. Of the 14 points, unbundled local transport arguably packs the largest financial wallop for the ILECs.

To satisfy the unbundled local transport requirement, ILECs must allow a CLEC/ISP to buy just the local loop transport circuits and place their own transmission devices on these circuits. These circuits are usually referred to as "dry copper" pairs because there is no switching or multiplexing equipment attached to the line. The copper merely runs from an originating location to the central office, cross-connects with another pair of wires on a distributing frame, and continues to the destination.

Until recently, dry copper pairs were procured mostly by burglar alarm companies or customers requiring security and monitoring systems. They were of little value for high volume data or voice traffic. Today, digital subscriber line (xDSL) technology makes it possible to drive previously unthinkable amounts of bandwidth across a dry copper pair. The development of xDSL technology has, practically overnight, transformed the ILECs’ embedded base of twisted pair copper from an obsolete, voice-only medium into a next-generation broadband medium. From the carriers’ perspective, technological alchemy has turned dry copper into gold. But the unbundled local transport requirement would force the ILECs to open their newly-discovered treasure chest to the hungry CLECs/ISPs — who see xDSL technology as their ticket for delivering voice and data services to the ILEC-dominated local exchange market.

Not wanting to lose the long-held local exchange market, the ILECs have petitioned the FCC for the right to resist sales of dry copper to retail ISPs or other entities for the provision of xDSL-based services. The outcome of the ILECs’ petition has significant ramifications for the telecom industry and consumers alike.

Scenario 1: The ILECs Win Relief
If the ILECs win their petition with the FCC to limit the sale of dry copper, or limit the amount of unbundling required, there could be many losers. CLECs, ISPs, and equipment manufacturers — not to mention customers desiring high-speed network access — stand to lose: And so do the ILECs.

  • CLEC and ISP target markets would be dramatically reduced because of the financial burdens associated with the procurement and installation of their own copper or fiber facilities. These types of carriers would potentially be forced to resell ILEC services — a non-starter for CLECs and ISPs.
  • Business and residential consumers would lose because choice would be eliminated, and with only a few major players to pick from, pricing would remain artificially inflated. Technical direction and service mix might remain questions of what the consumer will "tolerate," as opposed to what the consumer needs or desires.
  • Small and medium-sized equipment manufacturers would be squeezed out because of the short supply of new customers, and would find it difficult to compete against large equipment manufacturers. In the end, it would become business as usual: A few large manufacturers selling to a few huge carriers, thus perpetuating the monopolistic history the Telecommunications Act was meant to eliminate.
  • Finally, the ILECs would lose in the long run, because awarding short-term relief would lay the groundwork for blockage of the ILECs’ entry into the long-distance market.

Scenario 2: The ILECs are Denied Relief
If the ILECs lose their petition with the FCC, there could be many winners, including the ILECs themselves.

  • With access to unbundled copper pairs, the CLECs and ISPs would win because they could compete with the ILECs on an equal footing to profitably deploy the latest voice/data technologies. This competition is what the FCC and Congress had envisioned when the Act was signed into law.
  • Business and residential consumers would win as choices multiplied. Service quality, type, and pricing would constantly improve as service providers battled to maintain a share of each local market.
  • Small and medium-sized equipment manufacturers would win because of the continual stream of new small and medium-sized ISPs and CLECs to sell to. Niche equipment vendors would be able to profitably supply hardware to niche service providers, and technological innovation would flourish amidst the flurry of start-ups.
  • By unbundling the local loop, the ILECs would certainly lose local exchange market share. But what about all the money they could make in the long-distance market? And the ILECs could finally shed their stodgy "regional" image and move onto the global stage, developing new and unique services in the process. Will the ILECs opt to forego these exciting opportunities merely to hang onto a comfortable "cash cow?" Let’s hope not.

It is of paramount importance to the entire service provider industry, and to business and residential consumers, that dry copper pairs become available and affordable. This is also of great concern to companies that are making innovative last mile solutions available to ISPs, CLECs, and ILECs. All we can do now is wait and hope for a favorable outcome — the ILECs and the FCC hold the key to the last mile.

John Hudak is vice president of carrier marketing for Patton Electronics Company.Patton is a U.S. designer and manufacturer of access and connectivity products, including integrated access devices, xDSL modems, and remote access servers. For more information, visit Patton’s Web site at www.patton.com.

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