Translation, Please

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T-C-P-I-What?

It's hard to pick up a press release or talk to a
cable technologist these days without the term "IP" popping up.

Simply put, IP, or Internet protocol, is a language that
data equipment linking to the Internet uses to speak to each other, so that all of the
pieces in the chain know where and how to send information.

IP is also one of those acronyms that doesn't exactly
make a graceful shift into spoken language.

I found this out the hard way, when, during a recent
teleconference with a data-equipment supplier, I blurted out, "It just seems like IP
everywhere," before realizing the multiple connotations of that statement.

The reason why IP is a hot topic lately is because most
cable operators view it as the next big thing that will bring them incremental
subscription revenues. It's easy to carry on cable's wide pipes; everybody who
interacts on the Internet uses it; and there are loads of credible data- and
telco-equipment manufacturers building for it.

Plus, software companies are ceaselessly coming out with
new IP applications that will mostly run better on cable networks: Video telephony,
videoconferencing and second-line or full-home phone service, carried on the TV or the
personal computer, are all part of the potential IP-service mix.

Throw in an arrangement to link the high-speed-data
backbones of @Home Network and Time Warner Cable's Road Runner/MediaOne Express -- a
notion that was considered, dropped, and now deemed way too logical to not emerge again --
and suddenly, you have a tasty-looking network for long-distance carriers that want to get
into the local-phone market by sidestepping the twisted-pair wires owned by the telcos.

So, what is IP? Actually, it's a subset of a longer
protocol, known as TCP/IP, or transmission-control protocol/Internet protocol. All
apologies to data purists and gurus go into effect right here.

TCP/IP is a package of different rules that define how data
move from one network layer to another. There are five different layers, and they all
count toward the end game, which is moving data around so that they're all in one
piece at their target destination.

Just as protocol in the etiquette sense provides guidelines
on how to behave in certain situations -- to say "please," and to push in your
chair when you leave the table -- IP is a set of rules that tells data hardware how to
behave. It's part procedure, part practice and part policy.

Mostly, IP puts addresses on packets of data. In a
high-speed-data network, for example, cable modems and users are identified by their IP
addresses.

IP doesn't baby-sit the data to make sure that they
safely get to another destination. That's on the chore list of a different, but
related, protocol: TCP.

IP, by all accounts, looks to be one of those acronyms that
will soon become an everyday word around cable systems, if it hasn't already.

If the industry's PacketCable initiative is any
indication, services like IP phone will be in tests over cable modems and, later, over
digital set-tops by sometime next year.

PacketCable participants have been extraordinarily leery,
though, about fueling any IP-hype machines before services like IP phone and TV
videoconferencing are closer to becoming practical realities.

Most point to the new century as the time when IP services
will become pervasive, even including Moore's Law rules, meaning a doubling in
capabilities every 18 months.

Should system managers care about IP? Probably. If the
concept is, in fact, as promising as it appears, it holds considerable promise for
new-business opportunities.

But I wouldn't run out to the bookstore to master
IP's many nuances. I've looked at this stuff, and it's bone-dry.

Besides, PacketCable participants and cable technologists
say they're committed to making the technical parts work. This means that you may be
talking to them about a trial at some point, and then -- if all goes as discussed --
it'll become a part of your service mix, probably under a completely different name.
Let's hope so.

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