Charter Plots IP Field Test in St. Louis

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Standing pat on its strategy to forgo the circuit-switched route in favor of Internet protocol for voice services, Charter Communications Inc. said it will conduct a "carrier-grade," end-to-end voice-over-Internet-protocol cable-telephony field trial in St. Louis.

The test will use equipment from the Nortel Networks-Antec Corp. joint venture, Arris Interactive LLC.

Charter will use a host of Arris and Nortel components for the St. Louis trial to foster voice-over-IP (VoIP). They include the "Cornerstone Packet Port" network-interface unit; the "Cornerstone IP Access System," which provides a Data Over Cable Service

Interface Specification-based connection between the hybrid-fiber coax network and the managed IP network; a communications server for multimedia features; and an access switch that connects VoIP traffic to the public switched network.

Charter's St. Louis trial will involve as many as 500 customers. The MSO is also in the midst of another VoIP trial in central Wisconsin, using Cisco Systems Inc. and Telcordia Technologies Inc. network gear and Motorola Broadband Communications Sector-built NIUs.

The Wisconsin deployment underwent a technical trial this summer but should advance to the next stage in conjunction with the St. Louis test, Charter senior vice president of engineering John Pietri said. Both trials will eventually extend beyond the technical as Charter employs back-office systems and interconnection with the billing system.

"We'll be running both of those parallel starting in March to April of 2001, terminating in August," he added.

At that point, Charter plans to compare the results from both trials and stack them up against the VoIP business models the MSO is assembling before making its next move.

"We'll evaluate both tests, the platforms each of them ran on and make a decision as to the direction we want to go technically," Pietri explained.

Charter could try a limited commercial VoIP deployment by the end of this year or the beginning of 2002.

At least initially, Charter won't charge ahead as aggressively with voice deployments as AT&T Broadband has with its circuit-switched rollout, which has netted more than 500,000 cable-telephony subscribers.

How much energy Charter will expend on the marketing and deploying of VoIP largely depends on what results it gleans from the St. Louis and Wisconsin trials.

"We have our expectations, but part of it is to test how the marketplace views the service and accepts it," Pietri said.

When asked why Charter has remained steadfast in its pursuit of a full-IP voice architecture instead of a circuit-switched based one that could be migrated to switched-IP as the technology matures, Pietri said the MSO has decided to take full advantage of the DOCSIS 1.1 platform and the forthcoming PacketCable architecture.

"We're in the middle of deploying our high-speed data services using the DOCSIS platform across the majority of the company," he said. "We have little proprietary high-speed data product installed today.

"What we're trying to do is leverage the DOCSIS platform for other services, and IP telephony fits in that space very well."

Charter has also found that switches involved in VoIP can be deployed over a much wider area and then shared over systems, rather than localizing a number of Class 5 switches under the conventional approach.

"We get better economics out of deploying IP telephony," Pietri said.

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