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Look Ahead 2006

The CNS annual look into the future reveals there is a lot of change headed our way over the next 12 months.

November 1, 2005  

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Lines between data, voice and video are disappearing, and so in many cases are the wires. Networks get faster, yet a much-predicted wholesale shift from copper to fiber hasn’t materialized. The telecom industry keeps inching toward more competition, and 2006 could see major regulatory changes — or not.

Speaking at the Telemanagement Live conference in Toronto in October, Ian Angus, chairman of Angus Dortmans Associates, said 25 years in telecommunications consulting has taught him that the future never turns out as expected. With that wisdom in mind, here are some trends to watch in 2006, particularly in the cabling and telecom space.

No Funeral For Copper: New applications usually mean more bandwidth. “We’re seeing a proliferation of applications that are pretty bit-intense,” says Ken Hannan, Canadian vice president of sales for AT&T Corp. Fortunately, networking standards and cabling continue to rise to that challenge.

The big news is 10-Gigabit Ethernet. Though the IEEE 802.3ae standard is three years old, 10-gigabit links remain rare, but they are growing. The next issue of CNS will look at 10-Gigabit in depth, so we won’t spend much time on it here.

Surprisingly, twisted-pair copper cabling, which has long seemed due to be left behind by increasing bandwidth demands, keeps hanging on.

Copper has been used for short-haul 10-gigabit and faster connections for some time. A special twin-axial cable meets the InfiniBand specifications for high-speed transmissions up to 17 meters, and the IEEE’s 10GBase-CX4 standard allows 10-Gigabit Ethernet to run over this same cable. But several vendors have developed unshielded twisted-pair cable designed for 10 Gigabits, and the IEEE hopes to complete its 10GbaseT standard for 10-Gigabit Ethernet over this Category 6 Augmented cable by mid-2006.

One such vendor is St. Louis, Mo.-based Belden CDT Inc. Andre Mouton, product line manager for Belden in Montreal, says he has been surprised recently at the breadth of the market for Belden’s 10GX cable.

Instead of being limited to data centres and a few narrow vertical markets, he says, the high-speed cable is catching on for general horizontal cabling. Mouton believes that’s because unshielded twisted pair is familiar technology.

Though the cabling is available today, other components needed to achieve 10-gigabit speeds over it are still in the prototype stages. Mouton says some customers are installing the cable now, but by the end of 2006, he expects complete network installations.

Peter Sharp, senior telecommunications consultant at Toronto-based consulting engineers Giffels Associates Ltd., is skeptical. Hardly anyone will need 10 gigabits to the desktop within 10 years, he says, and where it is necessary, fiber is the best choice.

Lack of understanding of Category 6a’s physical requirements may lead to substandard installations, Sharp warns.

The cable’s thickness will require 1.25-inch conduit instead of smaller sizes common now, bigger cable raceways will be needed and the bending radius should be larger, but Sharp expects many installations will ignore these issues, and “the result is that inferior installations will be put into effect.”

Rob Stevenson, communications division manager at Toronto contractor Guild Electric Ltd. says 10-gigabit networks will give installers less margin for error.

“In general, the tolerances on your workmanship are a lot slimmer, so you have to take a lot more care and a lot more attention to detail,” he warns, and proper installer training will be even more important.

VOIP Unplugged: Two other hot trends lately have been voice over IP and wireless local-area networks. It was logical they would come together, and they have in voice over wireless LANs, or VoWLAN. “It’s not widespread yet,” says Jon Arnold, president of Toronto-based consultancy J. Arnold & Associates, but certain vertical markets are very interested.

Ben Guderian, vice president of market strategy at SpectraLink Corp., a Boulder, Colo., maker of VoWLAN equipment, says big-box retailers were early adopters, using VoWLAN to provide staff with portable phones that work anywhere in a store. The health-care and hospitality industries are also adopting it.

Wi-Fi-only phones have so far been popular largely where employees spend working hours within a workplace and don’t need cell phones. But they could also serve those who move around both within the office and outside it.

Many of them often use cell phones even to communicate with co-workers within the same building. Their employers might save cell phone charges by moving that traffic to their own wireless LANs.

That could be done with dual-mode phones that switch between cellular and Wi-Fi. One such device is the Motorola CN620 phone, and Stephen Orr, director of client relations at Motorola Canada Ltd. in Toronto, says it is just the first such product Motorola will introduce in the next year.

The question is how eager mobile carriers will be to support these devices, notes Ronald Gruia, enterprise communications program leader at the Canadian office of consulting firm Frost & Sullivan Inc.

Since dual-mode phones could cannibalize cellular minutes by moving calls to internal Wi-Fi, why would carriers support them?

But Gruia says VoWLAN will come whether carriers support dual-mode phones or not. “Some players will do it,” he says, “and the big guys will have to follow.”

And Mike Hluchyj, founder and chief technology officer of Sonus Networks Inc., a Westport, Mass., firm supplying IP gear to phone companies, says carriers may see dual-mode capabilities as a way to win more business.

Bryn Hughes, network specialist at Vancouver Community College, says that while the college has not done a full-scale wireless rollout yet, voice over wireless, and particularly dual-mode phones, are intriguing.

While VOIP has little impact on network installation — it is really just another application, Stevenson says — it raises design issues for wireless networks.

Rick Moran, vice president of product and technology marketing at Cisco Systems Inc. in San Jose, Calif., says companies using wireless for voice often discover coverage gaps.

“People don’t tend to try to find a quiet place in the stairwell to type an e-mail,” Moran observes, but they use phones in stairwells, hallways, and other areas existing wireless LANs may not cover.

VoIP for the Rest Of Us: To date, enterprise VOIP has been aimed mainly at larger organizations and required an IP PBX.

This can be too costly and complex for smaller businesses. Ottawa-based Nimcat Networks Inc. created an alternative: software that makes each IP phone a “tiny little PBX,” says Mahshad Koohgoli, former Nimcat CEO and now vice president of peer-to-peer business at Avaya Inc., which acquired Nimcat in September.

Plug phones running Nimcat software into a LAN and they negotiate among themselves, assigning extensions and arranging to back each other up so that, for instance, a user can still retrieve voice mail even if his or her phone is not working.

The user enters his or her name on the keypad, and the phones publish a directory of names and extensions among themselves.

If each phone has an outside number, Koohgoli explains, the network router uses IP addresses associated with the numbers to route incoming calls.

If there are more extensions than outside lines, each line is assigned to one phone, which routes calls to appropriate extensions.

Peer-to-peer VoIP best suits offices with fewer than 50 phones, says Mario Belanger, president of Avaya Canada, and will complement Avaya IP PBXs aimed at larger installations.

Arnold says 98% of enterprises have fewer than 100 lines and 60% have fewer than five. “I think the smaller enterprises are very cost-conscious,” says Gruia, “and they’ll definitely embrace this.”

VoIP has also caught the open-source community’s attention. Digium Inc. of Huntsville, Ala., pioneered this with its Asterisk open-source PBX software. “It’s not totally free but it’s a much more economic alternative,” says Arnold.

Take Your Office Anywhere: Working at home or on the road has always involved compromises. That may change soon, and voice over IP is one reason. As enterprises implement VoIP, they can extend the corporate phone systems to anywhere with an Internet connection.

Home workers can bring their office extensions — complete with all their functionality — home with them, and even to hotel rooms and wireless hotspots.

“I think it isn’t just having workers working from home either part or full time,” says AT&T’s Hannan. “I think it allows employers to widen the scope of potential (job) candidates, because geography is no longer the limit.”

Stan Tyo, vice president of contact centre solutions at Telus Corp., says IP-based virtual call centres let dispersed employees, working from home or in branches, act as call centre agents.

Though voice capabilities show the most dramatic improvement today, IP networks help in other ways to erase distance between remote employees and the office. Add in the impact of increasing energy costs on the cost of travel, and working wherever you happen to be could become more common in 2006.

After Voice, Video: The ultimate step in erasing distance is recreating the experience of a face-to-face meeting. Videoconferencing has been with us for many years, yet it remains expensive, technically complex and therefore rare.

But for how long?

Mississauga, Ont.-based BCS Global Networks Inc. has built its business on giving boardroom videoconferencing systems a new lease on life. Equipment designed to work over Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) lines gathers dust in many boardrooms, says Dan Tanel, chief technology officer and vice-president of operations at BCS, because setting up conferences is slow and tricky and connections often fail. BCS switches the systems over to run on its own private IP network.

ISDN conferences were expensive and prone to lost connections, so people avoided them, says Jackie Jenuth, director of business intelligence for MDS Capital Corp. in Vancouver.

Now that MDS has adopted the BCS service, “people just turn on the system like they would a telephone.”

Recently, BCS certified videophones from Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. for use on its network. The Chinese company’s phones transmit audio and video over IP, providing desktop videoconferencing at a cost well below that of boardroom equipment.

Few customers ask for desktop video today, Tanel admits, but as VoIP catches on, video is a logical extension. Jenuth sees no immediate need at MDS, but admits that as users get more accustomed to VoIP, “it may come down the road.”

IP videoconferencing is part of a larger wave. IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) is an architecture for delivering voice, data and video over IP networks, developed by a collaboration of standards bodies called the Third Generation Partnership Project.

Henry Goldberg, senior networking analyst at research firm In-Stat of Scottsdale, Ariz., predicts telecommunications carriers will overlay IMS on their networks as a basis for current and future services such as IP videoconferencing.

Other uses for IP video include interactive kiosks to let retail customers talk directly to distant experts. Moran says some car dealerships are using such kiosks to close financing deals.

The Regulatory Review: Technology is not all that affects communications. The end of 2005 is the deadline for Ottawa’s Telecommunications Policy Review panel, appointed in April, to report. The panel has a mandate to recommend changes to Canada’s telecom policy framework, possibly including revisions to the Telecommunications Act and the role of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

The panel has received masses of submissions. Some, including the incumbent telcos, want the Telecommunications Act’s objectives focused more directly on competition.

The incumbents also argue for ex post rather than ex ante regulation – in other words, punish carriers for bad behaviour rather than making them ask permission to set rates and introduce new services.

Some suggest reducing the CRTC’s role and allowing other bodies such as the Competition Bureau to regulate telecom as they do other industries.

Opinions are divided on the review’s impact. Eamon Hoey, Toronto telecommunications consultant and president of Hoey Associates Telecommunications Consulting Services, expects a ho-hum report.

“Really what you’re reading is old ideas put forward by legacy operators,” he says of the voluminous submissions.

Others are more hopeful. “The panel’s report could be a landmark in the evolution of telecom policy in Canada,” says Elisabeth Angus of Angus Dortmans Associates. But Angus worries that the report will sit on a shelf and not lead to action. It seems certain action won’t come quickly, given that the final report of the Gomery patronage-scandal inquiry is due around the same time as the review panel and at press time a federal election was expected to follow.

Whatever comes of the policy review, regulatory change is coming. The CRTC is also in the midst of proceedings that could eventually lead to deregulating local phone service. Hughes at Vancouver Community College says the big telcos still dominate the market, but VoIP could change that.

“There’s definitely a lot of change coming,” he says. That about sums it up.

Grant Buckler is a Kingston, Ont. freelance writer who specializes in IT and telecommunications issues. He can be reached at