A network that is voice and data ready
NGN has been the word on the networking street for ten years. Still, how much benefit local companies will see, and when, is a matter for debate.
Next generation, new generation or, as Verizon perversely insists on calling it, third generation networks, hit the headlines again earlier this year with Telkom's announcement that it will spend R30 billion implementing such a beast. NGN realises the vision of that much abused word - convergence - uniting voice and data traffic on one physical infrastructure. This has obvious benefits. You only have one resource to manage, instead of separate voice and data systems, and you only have one set of support staff to pay.
Technically speaking, an NGN is identical to an MPLS-based network. Multi Protocol Label Switching (MPLS) is a data-carrying mechanism, which emulates some properties of a circuit-switched network over a packet-switched network in terms of architecture, protocols and infrastructure. This means that your networking staff provided they are well versed in anything and everything IP won't need retraining either.
Free at last?
"The fundamental step forward in the NGN space is completing a process that has been going on for the past decade: decoupling the application from the underlying infrastructure," says Dimension Data's executive director for services marketing Derek Wilcocks. He likens this to what was seen with the Unix operating system in the '80s and '90s, and then Windows as it emerged. These operating systems disconnected the application from the hardware it runs on.
What this decoupling enables, he says, is for services and features to be extended, for example, to wireless and satellite networks. It also allows them to be easily propagated across the networks of different service providers. "We can now start offering quad-play services, with the necessary quality of service, security and identifying information [which piece of information is linked to which]," he says. It also enables a variety of features around voice, data, rich media and multimedia to be offered to consumers, he adds.
Simply put, a call made from an office phone can be connected over the same network as the e-mail sent following up on that call. The information contained in that e-mail can be delivered to your PC, mobile phone or any other device - whether it is wireline or wirelessly connected - on any network. Video streamed, in real time, to colleagues countrywide can also be carried on this network, and received at any device that is capable of showing video data. The network won't lose one bit of it. Of course, all of the above is enabled by an IP network or an MPLS network. "What makes an NGN an NGN is the services enabled on it, and what the network is used for," says BOX director Willem van Rensburg. "Otherwise, it's just an MPLS-based network running data services."
Feed me, Seymour
What an NGN needs is bandwidth, lots and lots of bandwidth. Says van Rensburg: "Don't make the mistake of thinking that just because you can run voice and data over the same link that you won't need to expand the size of that link. You cannot do voice without having a certain level of quality, for example. If your bandwidth is over-subscribed, you won't be able to do voice or video. It just doesn't work."
What the network should enable you to do, however, is access bandwidth on demand. This is only possible if you outsource to a service provider that can provision this. You will also be able to get your service provider to switch on new services or features for you as and when you need them.
Service providers may need to upgrade their networks to facilitate this, which will prove expensive, at least initially. Thereafter, however, as Duxbury Networking head Graham Duxbury notes: "A major benefit of NGN is the cost saving brought to the table by new infrastructure not being required every time a new service comes to market. The NGN will support virtually any service the customer needs, by default."
This assumes that there is a readily available supply of bandwidth, which there isn't, at a reasonable price, which there isn't, either. "Bandwidth is the key to a reliable IP network, but this is one currency SA doesn't have," says Dave Gale, director at Storm Telecommunications.
"Right now, our environment can be defined as 'bandwidth lean'. This means that there isn't enough bandwidth, and what is available is too expensive for us to fully embrace convergence," he says. "A 'bandwidth phat' environment would be characterised by the ability to access any voice or data service, regardless of location or medium, at a cost that doesn't exclude small businesses and consumers. IP needs phat - lots of it. It's bandwidth hungry and will nonchalantly drop packets of information if there isn't enough bandwidth to support it."
He says it is optimistic to believe SA will have an NGN and a bandwidth phat environment by 2010 (and the Soccer World Cup), considering the incumbent's current capacity problems in the rollout of basic Diginet and ADSL lines.
If lack of bandwidth is the first problem, the second is that an NGN built on old telco infrastructure has limitations. As BCX's Van Rensburg says: "If a telco has an NGN, it can carry a converged communications flow. Customers have one connec- just because you can run voice and data over the same link that you won't need to expand its size. tion point to the carrier. At the moment, connections are made at multiple points, using multiple protocols. So it becomes a multi-investment issue."
The bottom (fixed?) line
All is not lost, however, as there are a number of IP networks in SA already. The SNO plans to roll out (when it does roll out) what it calls a "full services network" and Telkom, as previously noted, is currently upgrading. Both MTN and Vodacom have rolled out 3G and HSPDA, and Cell C is in the process of catching up.
Eran Ofir says a move to an NGN may be expensive, but it will mean a dramatic decrease in the total cost of ownership for service providers. Ofir is the newly appointed country manager at Amdocs, which provides the operational systems telcos need to run NGNs. He says the saving on a voice call can be as much as 80 percent.
This bodes well for a country and economy that has long dreamt of affordable, widespread access to what many in the developed world would consider to be basic telecommunications services.
Points to ponder
A critical issue for NGN is interconnection between the various providers. This is currently underway, but nothing has been finalised yet and Icasa has yet to issue regulations.
"The commencement of the EC Act will have very little impact on the telecommunications space until it morphs from legal jargon into regulation. As it stands now, Icasa is not in any position to take on the difficult task of turning the EC Act into practical, usable regulations. At the point in history when Icasa most needs to be strong and prepared for action, many senior staff members have resigned and a significant number of councillors are about of leave." - Dave Gale, business development director, Storm
"The biggest inhibitor [of NGN] at the moment is the amount of available bandwidth on the last mile. The promise of wireless broadband and new wired solutions capable of delivering world-class data rates and reliability are, however, showing strong promise in solving these issues." - Graham Duxbury, CEO, Duxbury Networking
"If I were a CIO, I would migrate to the first service provider offering NGN services and start tackling the learning curve of adapting the internal organisation to IP-based services. Then, because of competition, I could move easily to another provider offering a better service should I wish to in the future." - Eran Ofir, country manager, Amdocs SA
About the Author
Storm Telecommunications provide businesses with Internet connectivity that is fast, cost effective and reliable. We prioritise taking the time to analyse your business' Internet requirements in detail.
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