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Industry Insight
October 2001

Jim Machi

Recycling The AIN


While SS7 hums away keeping our networks running, the convergence of IP and circuit-switched networks continues moving forward. As discussed in November 2000's Industry Insight, SS7 is here to stay. It's unifying the public switched telephone network (PSTN), wireless networks, and IP networks. More companies are offering Sigtran-compliant signaling gateways, as successful bakeoffs continue ensuring interoperability. In fact, SS7 has become instrumental in deploying General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) to enable enhanced wireless data support. Now it's time to look at the Advanced Intelligent Network (AIN) and how it can work with Internet telephony.

Today IP telephony only accounts for a small percentage of voice calls. According to a TeleGeography 2001 report, international VoIP traffic is only expected to be 3.7 billion minutes in 2001, while international PSTN traffic is expected to be 124 billion minutes. The VoIP opportunity is also shifting from the PSTN backbone to the edge, since arbitrage is not as attractive as it had been. Another trend to consider is the technology market slump. Large telecom equipment manufacturers are laying off thousands of employees, margins are being squeezed, and everyone is looking for low-risk opportunities. The bottom line? VoIP has many benefits, which is why it will eventually win. But the road to success won't be a straight one.

So why talk about "Recycling the AIN?" Recycling is the art of reusing something, whether it's cardboard, broken down and blended with new pulp to give it the strength to be made into new cardboard, or turning an old steam radiator from the 1930s into a piece of art. Both these examples are recycling, and recycling is good. Since the AIN exists today in the PSTN, the quickest and most economical approach is to recycle these services with the growing IP networks.

AIN separates the service logic from the switching equipment with a key benefit of cutting both time to market and development costs. This allows more competition by giving service providers an easier way to offer new value-added services. Switching equipment doesn't need to be redesigned; and a switch is only needed for the initial call. In the end, the customer benefits from expanded service capabilities and choices, along with a lower total cost of deployment.

While there are many examples of AIN, one that provides a lot of value to retail outlets is the store locator service. Businesses can advertise one number (usually toll-free) from which callers are automatically transferred to the nearest location based on their telephone number (or the number from which they are calling). Since a switch isn't intelligent, it can't perform this function. However, once the business number is dialed, the switch sends an SS7 query to the AIN service platform, which matches the calling party number to the nearest location in a database. The AIN platform sends the correct routing information back to the switch, which routes the call to the nearest location.

SIP promises many of the same capabilities as AIN. It can decouple the address and a physical device, enabling more intelligent call processing. It will allow users to receive communications and services from any location. Conversely, it will allow networks to identify and locate users wherever they are. SIP does this by keeping track of people and devices through a SIP server, which contains information on how to communicate with someone based upon the device they're currently using. For instance, if you have only your wireless PDA turned on because you're traveling, the SIP application can determine this and negotiate the appropriate communication method, it could also track you to your computer if you were sitting in front of your laptop at home. SIP will allow interaction and responses from servers and databases -- the next round of service control points (SCPs) used for AIN today.

SIP lacks a large embedded base of users, but that isn't a problem. SS7 will allow SIP to reach the massive circuit-switched market segment and make it possible to use the AIN infrastructure already in place. SS7/IP signaling gateways will enable this interaction, and provide the communication path between the circuit and IP networks. AIN will need to be recycled, or reused, to make this successful. Simple transactions like 800 database dips, local number portability, alternate destination on busy, and other AIN services don't need to be recreated in an IP environment. We just need to be certain that a VoIP call can reach and be reached by these services. Integration needs to be a major component of any VoIP and AIN deployment.

How does the economy factor in? The bubble has burst, funds have disappeared, and some telecom companies are in trouble. While it's hard to find any positives here, there are a few. In today's down market, decisions will be scrutinized. Instead of 20 companies deploying competing standards, everyone will have an incentive to deploy under one standard. This will also push service providers to recycle the embedded investment they've already made -- making the transition to new technologies more cost effective. This should increase the likelihood of success, since the economics of these new services will be more favorable.

The AIN and SS7 have huge capabilities and support most of today's circuit-switched traffic. The smart money says they won't be thrown out and replaced anytime soon. Wise decision makers will look to leverage the existing infrastructure, deploy IP telephony where it makes economic sense, and interoperate with the AIN. 

Jim Machi is Director, Product Management for the Intel Telecommunication and Embedded Group. The Intel Telecommunication and Embedded Group develops advanced communications technologies and products that merge data and voice technologies into a single network.

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