Even Open-Access Tests Are Complex for Cable

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While recent moves by Time Warner Cable and AT & T Broadband appear to be paving the way for the inevitable open access over cable networks, the technological and operational challenges involved in those efforts appear to hold-for now, at least-more questions than answers.

Specifically, cable operators must touch three areas of concern before they can foster open access: create "service-agent" software that allows customers to pick and choose Internet-service providers and data-speed service tiers; build back-office support for trouble ticketing and provisioning; and configure the network for multiple-ISP traffic.

All of those items are easier said than done, considering the fact that cable networks have already been built to support just one exclusive ISP.

Time Warner became the latest MSO to create an open-access proving ground last week when it signed a "binding letter of intent" to open up cable lines and offer high-speed services from Juno Online Services Inc. nationwide. An initial trial will take place in Columbus, Ohio, the MSO said, adding that more markets would follow.

Those involved in AT & T Broadband's pioneering open-access trial this November in Boulder, Colo., are tackling such nuts-and-bolts issues as selecting a protocol and developing service-agent software before getting into problems like signing up customers and getting them to their chosen ISPs.

The trial won't lack for participants. All 10 ISPs AT & T Broadband invited to participate in the six-month Boulder trial are doing so, with up to 500 high-speed customers-along with an 11th ISP, Winfire Inc., which recently joined the list-according to Carl Smith, the MSO's director of business development. Other ISPs will likely join, as well, he added.

Having a large contingent of ISPs involved in the trial is important because providers such as America Online Inc. and Juno have different business models that need to be inspected and trailed. "Adding ISPs to the trial gives us a number of flavors that we can test," Smith said.

So far, the crowd is behaving well, Smith indicated. "Given that it's a technical trial, there's less preparation needed than we'd have for a marketing trial, because we're focusing on all of the support systems and communications systems between us and the ISPs that are participating in the trial," he said.

"It's not easy," he added, "but at least everyone is working together."

AT & T Broadband's service-agent software-which enables consumer ISP choice and bandwidth levels-is just about complete, and it should be ready for early usability testing in mid-August. "We're running so fast that I wouldn't dare call it a version 1. It's more like a version 0.5 that we'll use for the trial," Smith joked.

Because the trial is technical in nature, AT & T Broadband's goal is not to measure consumer behavior, but to take the system through several iterations-a process Smith calls "pressing all of the knobs."

Those customers "will be doing a lot of artificial behaviors for us-subscribing, unsubscribing, changing their speed up and changing their speed down," he explained.

Cable operators are still debating what protocols-which govern how data is transferred on a network-to use to build the open-access environment. Each protocol appears to have its own unique set of pros and cons.

AT & T Broadband, for one, will follow Cable Television Laboratories Inc.'s lead and install policy-based routing-a method that routes packets from a customer's cable modem to his or her specific ISP.

The approach has minuses and pluses. "The problem with [policy-based routing], as I understand it, is that you can't do any traffic monitoring," Media Connections Group principal David Large said.

But policy-based routing doesn't require gobs of cable-operator elbow grease, said Erik Gilbert, a solutions manager for Cisco Systems Inc.'s cable-broadband-access group, which makes routing equipment for policy-based routing.

"[Cable operators] don't need lots of new hardware to make policy-based routing work," Gilbert said. "It can be done through a simple software configuration, so there's not a lot of technological risk. This stuff has been around for a while."

Broadband Access Systems Inc. director of product management Benoit Legault said at least three other approaches are available: network-address translation, tunneling and native Internet protocol.

The drawback to NAT, Legault said, is that the protocol would not allow cable operators to offer virtual private networks, possibly crimping potential revenue for operators that want to tap the telecommuter and SOHO (small office/home office) markets. Peer-to-peer applications such as online gaming also do not work well with NAT, he added.

Tunneling protocols create a virtual cyber tunnel on a cable operator's network that feeds data to the correct ISP. Although that technique is quick and easy for cable operators to deploy, it can cause security issues at the cable-modem-termination-system level, Legault said.

Another potential pitfall for tunneling is that cable operators cannot monitor what type of data flows through. This would become a problem if operators wanted to charge extra for high-bandwidth applications such as video streaming.

But several industry sources said that drawback won't matter much because cable operators plan to offer tiered bandwidth services. Only those customers who pay for gold and platinum levels of service would be able to stream at speeds that don't make video appear grainy, choppy and disjointed-a problem shared by the majority of dial-up customers today.

The native IP approach includes an embedded IP stack that belongs to a particular ISP, Legault said. While native IP does not require PC clients and keeps customers always connected to the Internet, it does require operators to manage or hand out IP addresses that belong to multiple ISPs.

Regardless of what protocols cable operators employ for open access, service provisioning will remain extremely important, said Legault, whose company offers such a service to complement its Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification CMTS equipment.

AP Engines Inc.-a provider of billing-mediation and provisioning software for cable operators and telcos-has been watching the open-access issue closely.

"The key is to get the manual processes out of the way and to prevent errors," AP Engines CEO Jon Sieg said. "Technically, you have cable operators keeping pools of IP addresses from multiple ISPs."

Using that approach, cable operators and ISPs can interface systems and allow customers to select specific ISPs on the fly.

Smith agreed. "Our goal with open access is to provide consumers with the best possible scenario around," he said. "That includes not just getting access to an ISP other than Excite@Home [Corp.], but to more than one ISP per household, if that's their choice."

Those decisions are only the beginning of getting the trials going. Ultimately, customer-support and communications issues will likely take the longest to iron out completely, Smith said.

"That's where we'll get the stress tests," he added.

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