Cable operators now readying voice-over Internet protocol services are apparently making the call to support law enforcement's electronic-surveillance capabilities under the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act.
But it is far from an easy connection — developing the technical planks to support CALEA capabilities in the IP world is more complex than in the older circuit-switched environment. And it is still unclear whether federal and state regulators will require VoIP services to provide the same CALEA capabilities as their older telephony rivals.
To begin with, bringing CALEA to the VoIP environment is not as easy as flipping a switch. That's due to the different way in which call traffic is routed in a traditional switched network, compared with a newer VoIP system.
In the older switched networks, all calls are routed through a Class 5 switch, so it is the logical place for law-enforcement authorities to set up taps for electronic surveillance. Not so in VoIP systems, where packet call traffic can take several routes between cable-modem termination systems, soft switches and voice-signaling gateways.
All the more reason to thoroughly test systems, and that is exactly what Comcast Corp. is doing as it readies VoIP for market trials in 2004. While both capabilities present challenges, they are crucial to a primary line service, according to Rian Wren, senior vice president and general manager of Comcast Digital Phone.
"From a business standpoint, Comcast has always been striving to develop a telephone voice capability that could be competitive in the marketplace, meaning that it could be competitive to replace customers' alternatives," he said. "So to do that, from the get-go, we always believed that we needed to provide the essential services like e911 and CALEA."
In its Moorestown, N.J., lab, Comcast is now testing two CALEA-delivery strategies. The first uses the original PacketCable architecture, where the softswitch and voice-signaling gateway are separate devices. In that scheme, Comcast is using softswitches from Syndeo Corp. and has more recently added Cisco Systems Inc.
To provide a centralized CALEA call intercept, Comcast is using software and a box provided by start-up SS8 Networks, which links to each of the devices in the network, allowing it to flag the call to be wiretapped.
The other scheme Comcast is testing uses Cedar Point Communications Inc.'s Safari C3, a combined softswitch and voice gateway. That effectively mimics the older Class 5 switches, with all call traffic routed through a single unit.
"We have that delivery function built into our system, as well as all of the administrative functions that you need to have from a CALEA administrator point of view," said Rafael Fonseca, Cedar Point's senior director of product definition. "It makes all of that compliance a lot more straightforward and a lot easier."
But that doesn't necessarily mean Cedar Point's version has a leg up as Comcast tests the two schemes, said Sam Chernak, Comcast's vice president of VoIP.
"There are a myriad of factors for evaluating apples to apples between those two solutions," Chernak said. "And we will probably bring another solution into the lab. So to the extent that one of them is a lot easier or even feasible to do now and the other is not, those are obviously good points for the one that can do it."
Meanwhile, there are other complications, such as finding a way to make the link to law enforcement agencies.
"One of the complications is actually getting that bridged on call down to a law enforcement agency, none of whom today possess the interface to talk IP," Chernak noted.
Then there is the regulatory issue — up to now, such voice services delivered via data networks have not necessarily had to meet CALEA requirements. But there are signs the Federal Communications Commission and a cadre of state regulators are starting to eye IP voice services with tighter regulations in mind.
"The interesting thing that we struggle with right now is where over the next several years is the regulatory process going to take?" Wren said. "We all have different views and we struggle with just what is going to be required."
Other cable operators also are adopting CALEA capabilities in their initial rollouts.
Time Warner Cable, which originally envisioned its IP telephony service as a second line service, has now realigned the product for primary service. With a market rollout in Portland, Maine already under way and rollouts in two North Carolina systems planned, the MSO has CALEA support.
"Time Warner Cable is voluntarily complying with CALEA obligations so that, with respect to our Digital Phone customers, we are able to provide assistance to law enforcement agencies," spokesman Keith Cocozza said.
Cox Communications Inc. already provides CALEA support for its existing switched telephony business, and it plans to carry that over to future IP-voice service.
"At this time, Cox is working law enforcement agencies, [Cable Television Laboratories Inc.] and vendors to ensure that all CALEA requirements will be met prior to launching VoIP service to its customers," said Cox director of product management Dianna Mogelgaard.
Cox already has begun a VoIP technical trial, which includes a specific test plan for CALEA information gathering and e911 capability.