With two technical voice-over-Internet protocol trials already under its belt, Charter Communications Inc. this summer will launch a marketing trial of both primary and secondary line IP service in Stevens Point, Wisc.
"The goal is to take a product to customers that they want and will readily adopt," said Charter senior vice president of telephony Majid Mir.
Prior trials in Stevens Point and St. Louis have focused on integrating various IP-telephony vendors.
"There is an immense amount of integration work required to get the end-to-end service to work in a reliable fashion," Mir said. "That integration effort is tied to the youth of this DOCSIS (Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification) 1.0 and 1.1 protocol."
In Stevens Point, Charter used a Cisco Systems Inc. cable-modem termination system gateway, a Motorola Inc. network-interface unit and Telcordia Technologies Inc. call agents.
The test was conducted among several hundred friendly subscribers in the field.
"The focus was on testing the technology, interoperability and integration across the various vendors," Mir said.
Charter already offered high-speed data service through Cisco's CMTS prior to the IP telephone-service test.
"We were looking at, 'What does it take to operate, maintain and provision the solution end-to-end?' and setting up realistic scenarios," Mir said. "We also designed it to build our own process platform, billing system setup and [get] all the back-office, field and operations processes mapped and beginning to be executed."
In Stevens Point, Charter will replace Telcordia call agents with technology from Nortel Networks Inc., which provided the call agents for the St. Louis trial. (In St. Louis, Charter is using an Arris Group Inc. 1500 CMTS and network-interface unit.)
Charter will also look at several different NIU vendors for the Stevens Point trial, said Mir. Cisco will remain in place, he said.
In St. Louis, "integration to the NIU is the toughest problem," Mir said.
The St. Louis trial is also cleaner, as only telephony traffic runs through the Arris CMTS.
The two tests bolster Mir's belief that Charter can deliver IP telephony by 2003 and 2004.
"IP in general is definitely closer than it was 18 to 24 months ago," he said. "The pinch point keeps changing.
"The pinch point is having a stable, reliable, functional, economically viable architecture. It used to be the call agent was the pinch point. Then it was the NIU. Now it's the gateway that's the pinch point.
"The development of call agents have come along way," Mir added. "I'm not that concerned about the call agents anymore. You can find call agents with a full suite of class 5 functionality. CMTS scalability has grown dramatically. NIU implementation has come a long way.
"The other issue was that the gateways weren't scalable enough, and didn't provide fault tolerance and reliability. There's been major advancements in that direction. That's where there is the least [vendor] competition."
Winning the IP trial's call agent business gives Nortel a bit of a boost.
"This is a very exciting time," said Nortel senior manager of VoIP cable marketing Elaine Smiles. "The momentum is building."
Nortel's biggest IP success to date in IP has been in Germany, where it won several contracts.
Last week, Nortel announced it would team with Motorola's Broadband Communications Sector to provide an integrated VoIP system and speed the technology's cable penetration.
The non-exclusive agreement links Motorola's IP cable-access technology to Nortel's voice and data services to create a complete, pre-tested, standards-compliant VoIP system. Motorola will supply its multimedia terminal adapter and customer premise equipment, including modems and cable-modem termination systems.
Nortel Networks and Motorola will share coordinated sales and support duties, including network planning, design and implementation.
Cable operators are looking at VoIP for primary, secondary and "soft" second line service, Smiles said. While primary service would be aimed to replace a customer's standard phone line, secondary voice would cover traditional, non-lifeline phone service from a modem or set-top box.
"Soft, second-line service is phone service delivered to your computer," Smiles said. "It's more flexible and richer than secondary voice" and could include multimedia applications for the telecommuter or a university student with a laptop PC.
"The business applications are significant in terms of mobility," she said.
That means operators could offer VoIP service to customers who aren't tethered to conventional cable lines.
"You can take an integrated multimedia server, and on an open platform deploy it on a packet network," Smiles said. "Think about it like Hotmail (Microsoft Corp.'s Web-based electronic-mail service).
"You can be mobile and log into your e-mail. If they deploy soft second-line service, they aren't tied to homes passed. They can go to anyone with a high-speed connection."