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Taking a hard look at soft-switch tech

Sep 3, 2001  •  Post A Comment

AT&T Broadband, the nation’s largest cable operator, has submitted a request for information to software developers in the nascent soft-switch voice over Internet protocol industry, indicating its interest in adopting the new technology, according to cable industry insiders.
The multiple system operator performed technical trials of the technology earlier this year in Boulder, Colo., near its Englewood, Colo., headquarters. If the operator proceeds with a broader market trial and deployment of the software, AT&T would become the nation’s first major MSO to implement the technology.
However, several other cable operators could beat AT&T to the punch. Comcast Cable Corp. has launched some new tests of the soft-switch solution, although the company is keeping mum about specifics. And Time Warner Cable is also interested in a pure soft-switch system. “We think it’s a very promising technology,” said Time Warner Cable spokesman Mike Luftman.
To date, most American providers of VOIP have tiptoed into broadband waters, delivering voice in “packets” of data so that the voice stream can be managed and embellished by third-party software developers (for example, so that the voice call could be buttressed by a video image of the caller via camera-enhanced video phones, or so that voice messages could be accessed over e-mail through unified-messaging software). But market participants generally agree that cable operators and other broadband providers haven’t yet realized the significant cost savings that voice over Internet technologies could bear, because the industry has been slow to discard the “hard switch” circuitry that traditional telephone companies have relied upon for setting up telephone calls and delivering voice streams.
Soft-switch technology developers, who rely solely on their software and the broadband industry’s newly paved roadway of fiber-optic pipes, hope to supplant the telcos’ expensive switch hardware, a move these soft-switch vendors say will erode the dense barrier of capital expenditures that prevents entrepreneurs from entering the voice services market.
AT&T Broadband spokeswoman Sarah Eder emphasized that the MSO still hasn’t reached the last mile in its soft-switch broadband strategy. “I’m not going to talk about the RFI [request for information],” Ms. Eder said, “because we’re always looking at new technologies. Whether you use circuit switches or IP-based telephone switches, it should be seamless to the customer. We continue to put customers on a circuit-switch network because it is a viable technology. We will not migrate to any sort of IP solution until that technology is ready for prime time.”
However, Ms. Eder acknowledged that a soft-switch system represents the future of the cable operator’s voice business. “We would prefer to move to a soft-switch environment when the technology is ready, because that’s where the savings are,” she said. “When we get to that stage, it would be a monumental shift for AT&T Broadband.”
Because Congress’s 1996 deregulation of the telecom industry has to date failed to germinate a crop of voice carriers to compete against local telephone monopolies, some soft-switch VOIP vendors have shifted their sales efforts away from the competitive local exchange carrier market and are instead beginning to court potential cable industry clients, including AT&T and Comcast.
One soft-switch vendor creating a buzz in cable industry circles is Israeli upstart Gallery IP Telephony. Founded in Tel Aviv in 1999, the voice software creator has kept its research and development operations in that city but now runs its marketing campaign out of an office in Annandale, N.J.
“Our product is currently focused on the cable industry but functions just as well in DSL or fixed wireless,” said Michael Flitterman, vice president of sales and marketing at Gallery IP. The technology company has commenced market trials with PTT Bezek, Israel’s telephone service provider; and Golden Channels, one of the country’s largest MSOs.
Although the telephony developer has yet to begin market trials with MSOs in the United States, Mr. Flitterman said CableLabs, a research and development organization formed by U.S. cable operators, has chosen Gallery IP as the soft-switch technology component of its PacketCable digital media specification. PacketCable’s specifications were adopted as a standard by the Society of Cable Television Engineers in February.
Sonus Networks, another VOIP developer, is also targeting the cable industry, according to Sonus.