US carriers and infrastructure providers are gathering this week at the Telecom '04 trade show in Las Vegas amid rapid changes in the telecommunications industry, including cable companies roaring into the voice business and phone companies switching on TV services.
VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) and the "triple play" of bundled voice, video and data services are among the hot topics at the show, which is sponsored by the US Telecom Association.
Executives of the nation's biggest incumbent carriers and cable operators, as well as three commissioners of the US Federal Communications Commission, will address industry participants at the show, which is expected to draw about 5,000 attendees.
VoIP is now starting to enter the mainstream in business, with large deployments announced recently at Ford Motor and Bank of America.
At Telecom '04, VeriSign introduced a service to help VoIP carriers offer a richer set of services on IP calls that travel over the PSTN (public switched telephone network).
While VoIP systems use the SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) and VXML (Voice Extensible Markup Language) protocols to communicate information about calls, the PSTN uses SS7 (Signaling System 7). VeriSign is introducing protocol conversion between the systems. With one IP connection to VeriSign, a VoIP carrier or internet service provider can have the signaling for its calls converted to SS7 and carried over the public network.
VoIP's usefulness is limited today because it exists in islands, said Tom Kershaw, vice-president of VoIP services at VeriSign.
The signals for special services such as blind transfer (transferring a call and hanging up before the line is picked up) may work on a certain type of PBX (private branch exchange) on one enterprise LAN or one VoIP service provider's network, but not on the public phone network or on other PBXes, Kershaw said.
That is a barrier to more advanced services such as IP videoconferencing, he said.
With VeriSign's new SIP-7 Services carriers can connect to VeriSign's SS7 infrastructure via a SIP-enabled softswitch and a secure IP VPN (virtual private network).
VeriSign's network can link them into carrier networks throughout North America and, optionally, some carrier networks in Europe, Kershaw said. It will save these providers the cost of equipment and personnel needed to handle SS7, he said.
Business VoIP is entering mainstream use, but it still has interoperability problems when it comes to advanced features, because suppliers keep adding their own extensions to industry standards, according to Yankee Group analyst Jim Slaby.
VeriSign, a newcomer to telephony, apparently solved this problem through "brute force", said Yankee Group analyst Zeus Kerravala.
"It looks like they've been working on this for a number of years," Kerravala said. SIP-7 Services could be a boon to enterprises as well as service providers, allowing them to take advantage of features that in many cases they have not had on IP telephony systems.
Another trend in the Telecom '04 spotlight is using broadband data connections for a "triple play" or even "quadruple play" of services, which may include wireline voice, video, data and wireless voice.
Cable companies are finding great success in some areas with triple-play offerings of TV, high-speed internet access and VoIP, and now telecommunications carriers are looking for ways to match or beat them, analysts said.
Some companies at the show will be showing off products to fuel those carriers' triple-play dreams. mPhase Technologies announced its mPhase TV+ System, designed to let carriers worldwide offer interactive IP video and data services over both copper and fibre networks.
The company intends it as a turnkey system to be used on top of carriers' existing infrastructure.
It is designed to work with DSLAMs (digital subscriber line access multiplexers) and IP multicasting equipment from multiple suppliers and to integrate with standard operations support systems for maintenance, as well as standard carrier services creation systems. A cluster architecture will allow for load balancing for content distribution, it said.
Kasenna introduced TotalTV, a system for hosting IPTV (Internet Protocol Television) services that includes rack-mounted hardware and integrated middleware that delivers the user interface to the subscriber's TV screen.
Because it has done the integration work, Kasenna can get services up and running on a carrier's network in as little as 45 days, according to Chris Morgan, Kasenna's director of sales for broadband service providers.
KPU Telecommunications is exploring TotalTV for an IPTV service it hopes to offer by September 2005. KPU wants to offer video services to compete with the local cable operator, which is already starting to roll out VoIP elsewhere in its coverage area.
KPU wants to offer a richer service than the cable company's, including features such as network-based PVR (personal video recording) and TV screen pops for caller ID, said Brian Slick, telecommunications marketing manager at KPU.
The small carrier has the benefit of fibre lines that go to access devices that are no more than 6,000ft of copper wire from most homes, though it may have to upgrade some of the access devices, Slick said.
Irdeto Access, a unit of global media group Naspers, will showcase two client products introduced last week for its Irdeto Pisys for IPTV framework, which is intended to secure video content distributed over broadband IP networks.
The company, a long-time supplieir of technology for set-top boxes, said it has combined the security of smartcards, which are relatively hard to "clone" in order to steal video services, with the low cost of set-top-box software. Its Epsilon Card with FlexiFlash technology is a smartcard for set-top boxes that allows service providers to upload changes to the smartcard software, such as countermeasures against piracy, remotely over the network.
Its SoftClient for the Pisys framework not only can be upgraded over the network but also can be checked by the carrier, remotely, for evidence that it has been hacked and needs to be upgraded with a new encryption key, said Ellie Sanchez, marketing communications manager at Irdeto.
Stephen Lawson writes for IDG News Service