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Voice-over-cable battle

Sep 24, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Cablevision, the nation’s seventh-largest cable operator, has selected Nuera Communications’ voice-over-cable technology for the multiple system operator’s imminent digital services rollout, cable industry insiders said.
Cablevision declined to comment on its selection of voice-over-cable vendors.
San Diego-based Nuera, like its competitor TollBridge Technologies of Santa Clara, Calif., manufactures “gateway” boxes, to be installed at cable headends, that enable operators to deliver voice services in “packets” of data without replacing their old-fashioned circuitry for routing and managing calls. A wide spectrum of voice-over-cable delivery mechanisms are sprouting up-ranging from Cox Communications’ and AT&T Broadband’s transport of voice over a digital network with traditional circuit-based switching that mirrors that of its Baby Bell competitors to Gallery IP’s pure soft-switch technology that threatens to render conventional telephone switch hardware obsolete (“Taking a hard look at soft-switch tech,” EM, Sept. 3).
But Nuera and TollBridge’s technologies are designed as compromises between Cox and AT&T’s currently deployed primitive voice-over-Internet protocol solutions and Gallery IP’s still-blossoming effort to move into the packet-based future. Both Nuera and TollBridge have their own particular selling points.
TollBridge boasts that its hardware can support innovative features such as onscreen telephony (phone service that can be paired with video and delivered onto a personal computer) and Web-based ordering of phone service. Nuera, by contrast, claims its technology will be more adaptable in the face of future telephony advancements. If cable operators ever abandon old telephone circuitry for good, Nuera’s box will remain useful, said Neil Salisbury, Nuera’s vice president of marketing.
“We can be redeployed as a `trunking gateway,”’ Mr. Salisbury said.
A `trunking gateway’ would be used when an MSO’s digital telephone customer called a subscriber to a Baby Bell’s nondigital telephone service. The apparatus would take the calls transported over the cable operators’ digital network and redirect them so they could move seamlessly onto the Baby Bell’s circuit-based phone system.
Aside from the similarities between Nuera and TollBridge’s products, the two ventures resemble one another in several other respects. Both companies have raised roughly the same amount of capital. Nuera has amassed $80 million over the past several years, while TollBridge has raised $85 million over roughly the same period. And both Nuera and TollBridge are engaged in numerous trials or deployments with cable operators around the globe.
TollBridge is participating in five trials in Europe, four in North America and two in Asia, said Kevin Woods, the company’s vice president of marketing. Two of those North American tests are major market trials in the United States with major cable operators, Mr. Woods said. A trial of TollBridge’s box with KNRW, one of Germany’s largest MSOs, just commenced last month.
Mr. Salisbury said several MSOs in the United States and Canada are currently testing Nuera’s technology.
In November, at the Western Show in Anaheim, Calif., TollBridge will exhibit one of its hardware’s flashiest features-the ability to run “video telephony,” or onscreen telephony applications that couple video streams with voice transport over personal computers or video phones.
“We haven’t shown publicly yet,” Mr. Woods said. And because the video telephony business is young and unproven, Mr. Woods isn’t willing to make any bold predictions about the size of the market. “We’re not sure how widely this will actually be deployed or used initially,” he said. “We really haven’t engaged a single MSO on it yet. We hope to in the coming months. What we’re hoping is that an MSO will look at this demonstration and say, `This looks really interesting. Can you help us [produce] it?”’
In turn, TollBridge would delegate responsibility for the customers’ onscreen experience to cable operators and their content or marketing partners. “We’re not really experts on user interfaces,” Mr. Woods said.
For TollBridge, the demonstration at the cable industry trade show will show the public that company’s metamorphosis from a voice-over-telephone DSL provider to a voice-over-cable vendor has been completed. “It’s been hard for the company to transform itself,” Mr. Woods said, noting that TollBridge’s about-face began early last year and continued throughout 2000.
Growth in the voice-over-DSL industry has failed to meet market participants’ expectations, largely because the longexpected development of the Competitive Local Exchange Carrier (CLEC) market that would have used voice-over-DSL technologies never materialized.