IP Rides High on AT&T 'To-Do' List

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For an executive who may be cleaning out his office by the end of the year, David Fellows has plenty of technology projects on his "to-do" list at AT&T Broadband.

Fellows, the Denver-based MSO's chief technology officer, recently outlined a full list of technology priorities leading up to the company's proposed merger with Comcast Corp. That includes a strong push toward an Internet protocol delivery system for voice, video and data services.

These projects hinge on the MSO's overarching technical drive this year — reviving the network rebuilding effort, which was stalled for most of 2001 as the fate of the cable unit was being decided.

"We announced 62 percent was upgraded and we exit the year at 70 percent," Fellows said. "But it's getting that up and running and done in a consistent, forward-looking manner. And a cost-efficient manner."

DATA DIVERSITY

On the high-speed data side, AT&T Broadband is focusing not only a multiple-Internet-service provider offerings but also on measuring consumption, tiered data rates, dial roaming and remote access.

Earlier this year, the company announced it had struck a deal with EarthLink Inc. to offer ISP service in its Seattle and New England markets. Last month, it also signed on New England regional ISP NET1Plus. And last week added Seattle provider Internet Central.

While a major ISP like EarthLink has fairly sophisticated technical expertise to support such coordination, the smaller ISPs that AT&T also plans to sign up are a different matter, Fellows said.

"I expect that we will have to supply support to them — nurture them, bring them onto our networks, teach them how to do this," Fellows said. "And that is part of what we are signing up for with Broadband Choice."

Meanwhile, the company also will begin converting former Road Runner customers in MediaOne Group Inc. territories over to the new AT&T Broadband system and backbone.

"It's now taking those two networks and now making them look the same — merging them together and then toward the end of next year taking control of all aspects of that network," Fellows said.

DOCSIS EVOLUTION

For the data technology itself, AT&T Broadband will continue its push into Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification 1.1, but Fellows cautioned " it will take quite a while — longer than the rest of this year to bring that base onto 1.1."

AT&T Broadband also is looking to install carrier class cable-modem termination system units based on PacketCable specifications, which will drive a voice-over-IP initiative. But that doesn't mean AT&T will be ripping out its existing Cisco Systems Inc. CMTS units wholesale.

"There seem to be some people who think we have to take the Cisco equipment and throw it away, and bring in new carrier-class equipment. And that's not my plan," Fellows said. "Because I believe there are an awful lot of services that can be assisted by [PacketCable] 1.1 that are not primary line telephony offerings. For example, gaming."

Fellows also said that AT&T Broadband is interested in adding DOCSIS 2.0 technology to its data plant. Given changing user habits, the tripled upstream capacity the new platform offers would be a boon to business and consumer data services.

"With peer-to-peer applications, traffic is becoming more and more symmetric-like," Fellows said. "It is certainly not 40 (Mbps) down for every 6 megabits up. It is in the range of symmetric, give or take 20 or 30 percent."

DIALING UP IP

For telephony service, AT&T will be dialing into IP technology, despite already having developed a significant circuit-switched telephony business.

Recognizing this mix, one of AT&T Broadband's priorities is to develop advanced intelligent network technology using an external feature processor sitting outside of the Class 5 switch. The feature processors can "control not only the Nortel and Lucent switches that we have on the circuit-switched side, but the same features could be rolled out onto voice-over-IP softswitches," Fellows said.

This year, AT&T will test VoIP in its labs and look at product integration with plans to take it into the field in 2003, he added.

"We are in the good situation that we have a working and, as we have announced, money-making circuit-switched offering," Fellows said. "And so there is no huge pressure to get an IP solution working."

VIDEO VARIATIONS

On the video front, AT&T has rolled out video-on-demand in a handful of systems. But Fellows noted the MSO is keen on creating an IP infrastructure to eventually deliver VOD using a centralized server infrastructure.

"There's work to do — that's one of the reasons why it may appear as though we have paused on video-on-demand," Fellows said. "It really is 'wait a minute — this is the structure I want. Let's figure out how to do that and then deploy it.' "

Although that IP metro transport system has not yet appeared in AT&T's systems, "I expect them to be out this year," Fellows said. "We believe that video-on-demand is an attractive service to be in. One of the things that is my preference is to do things right as opposed to rushing into the field with a solution."

And finally, AT&T plans to unveil high-definition TV service towards the end of the year.

THINKING OUTSIDE BOX

AT&T also wants to expand its set-top box lineup to add digital video recording and other features. The company has a marketing agreement with TiVo Inc. to provide sidecars to customers, but Fellows said the network AT&T envisions also would include network-based DVR service and hard drive options for digital set-tops.

Operators have a wider range of boxes to choose from these days, but Fellows said AT&T Broadband would like to see more.

"One thing that we want to have at AT&T Broadband is a broader range of choice in set-tops," he said. "There is still retail, which is the law of the land at a certain point, and you'd love to have some people with retail presence of consumer brands selling consumer devices that can hook onto your network in a secure manner."

The trend toward media centers — digital boxes that can network multiple TV sets and other entertainment devices — also fits into AT&T Broadband's plans.

"I definitely believe in that — I believe these media centers may be a way to extend the life of our legacy set-tops, because they sort of move into the slave off of a master," Fellows said. "Obviously we need to respond to our customers desires to have whole-house service."

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