GCI to Make the Telephony Switch

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General Communications Inc., the cable company serving Anchorage and several other Alaska cities, has begun converting its 60,000 circuit-switched telephony subscribers to VoIP.

But due to the company’s legacy plant — and its origins in the telephone business — the conversion begins with a voice-over-Internet protocol modem and VoIP transport, with calls still processed by the system’s Lucent Technologies Inc. class-5 circuit switch.

Thus, while residents in the land of the midnight sun are getting VoIP service months and even years ahead of their counterparts in the lower 48, the system’s topology makes IP-telephony implementation a little different than in greenfield U.S. markets.

GCI was founded as a long-distance telephone company in 1979. It broadened its scope in the early 1990s, when it purchased Prime Cable and Cooke Cablevision properties across the state.

In the mid 1990s, the company “intended to use the cable plant for telephony and did an alpha phone trial” to test noise and signal-leakage levels, said senior vice president Richard Dowling.

But the technology wasn’t quite ready for primetime, he said, so GCI chose to add a dial-up Internet-service offering for both business and residential customers.

LAYING THE GROUNDWORK

Then came the 1996 Telecommunications Act. The measure “opened the door for us to use the copper plant of the ILEC [incumbent local-exchange carrier] to provide our own switching platform,” said Dowling.

In turn, that allowed GCI to enter the local-loop telephone business in competition with local municipal phone providers. At the same time, it built an undersea fiber-optic connection to the contiguous U.S., enabling the launch of high-speed Internet service.

In 1998, GCI launched high-speed using Com21 Inc.’s asynchronous transfer mode-based platform, cable-modem termination systems and cable modems.

“It had the capability to deliver quality of service,” Dowling said. “We could guarantee speeds and it had, at the time, a superior management system.”

Since then, GCI has added a full Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS) overlay, using a cable-modem termination system from Arris Group Inc. and modems from Thomson Consumer Electronics.

“We started at 1.1 with DOCSIS,” he said, bypassing the first iteration of the standard.

The combination of the DOCSIS plant and the local phone gear meant that much of the groundwork for VoIP had been laid — and many of its costs had been defrayed.

Heading into this year, Dowling said GCI had 52% of the residential phone market and 40% of the business market, which tracks GCI’s long-distance penetration in the business segment.

The MSO also has 60,000 cable-modem subscribers and counts 40,000 dial-up Internet subscribers, as it works to convert its narrowband base to broadband.

CAPEX CONSIDERATIONS

The same conversion thoughts ring true for Dowling and his 60,000 circuit-switched phone customers. As VoIP has developed over the past few years, Dowling took a look at how GCI might benefit from the service.

The key economic trade-off became the cost of VoIP technology versus the $14 per month GCI pays the ILEC for each voice subscriber.

“We wanted to move those people over to the cable platform, but it has to make business sense,” he said. Dowling looked at the numbers and found it sensible to apply the $14 per month expense to VoIP capital expenditures. “There is a solid business case.”

There are also other values: “You’re also getting control of the customer experience. We have control if the consumer moves. We can provision that in the same day.”

It can take a week for the incumbent to process GCI’s provisioning changes, he said — and that’s a gap competitors can exploit.

VoIP also offered GCI the “ability to offer more advanced services, and that depends on having a smart endpoint. That’s another reason to convert.”

SEAMLESS CONVERSION

But as GCI eyed the process, Dowling knew the MSO had to take care of the consumer.

“The conversion has to be seamless,” he said. “The consumer has no incentive and could say: 'What’s in it for me? Why do I have to take off work for an installation call for the same service?’ ”

To battle those perceptions, GCI concentrated on several areas. It pursued an outside-the-home network-interface unit strategy, so phone service could be switched even if the subscriber wasn’t home.

GCI’s marketing pitch also touted phone service over hybrid fiber-coaxial plant as providing better fidelity than traditional copper-wire telephony plant.

Dowling said GCI chose to follow the PacketCable telephony standard, layered on top of DOCSIS.

“Looking at the investment going forward, we felt it was going to be in that [PacketCable] arena and existing technology was going to stagnate,” he said. “We felt the development money will go into this newer platform.”

GCI was also comfortable that CMTSs would get better, and that home consumer devices were both stable and cost-efficient enough for a PacketCable solution, Dowling added.

And GCI already owned a circuit switch. “We kept the switch,” he said, adding an Internet Protocol Digital Terminal next to the Lucent switch. The IP switch acts as a voice gateway.

“It talks to [the] GR303 circuit-switch interface standard between switches and the digital loop carrier devices,” he said. “The switch doesn’t need any new software. The IPDT performs translation.”

GCI uses narrowcast lasers to transfer phone signals to and from the cable headend and the CMTS unit.

The operator began testing that architecture, using Arris network-interface units, in late 2002 and throughout 2003. It then soft-launched it in one node in late last year.

“We split the node into smaller node sizes, put in powering, etc.,” he explained. “And we had to grow with the provisioning system.”

Last April, GCI launched VoIP market-wide, beginning the conversion of its 60,000 circuit-switched subscribers to IP telephony with no change in price.

“We’re doing just-in-time capex on the nodes,” Dowling said, adding that GCI has managed to recapture some bandwidth by converting some analog video signals to digital. That freed up enough space in the plant to reduce node sizes to as few as 1,000 homes.

The company is using Arris’s outdoor, telephone-only network-interface unit in both two- and four-line configurations. GCI calls the homeowner in advance to get permission to mount the unit on the side of the home and switch to VoIP.

An installation typically shuts down phone service for just five minutes, Dowling said.

“We mount the device, route the cable drop through it and power the drop,” he said. “We bring the device up and provision it, swing the household wiring over and clean up the install.”

Crews can convert six to seven households per day, he said.

WI-FI FUTURE

As of press time, GCI has completed 8,000 conversions, Dowling said. It’s on track to get half of the 60,000 done by year’s end.

Again, the telephony modem is separate from the cable modem, unlike most other mainland VoIP rollouts. “If they have a cable modem, we don’t change that,” he said.

Long-term, Dowling said GCI may look to a soft switch. But first, “we’ll go through the phone base in the next two to three years, converting people,” he said. “We’ll introduce an overlay of full PacketCable implementation and create a lab system in real world.”

The lab will examine applications — perhaps wireless fidelity or Wi-Fi — to enhance GCI’s service.

“There is growing probability there will be application-delivered convergence. …Wireless and wireline Wi-Fi nodes in home, we think that is a very compelling application,” he said.

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