A new alliance of several telecommunications carriers and equipment makers could bring the innovation and low prices of open systems to service providers' central offices.
Cisco Systems, MCI WorldCom, and Bellcore are spearheading the Multiservice Switching Forum (MSF), which last week presented an impressive line up of vendors and carriers that also included Lucent Technologies, Nortel Networks, and AT&T.
Officials said the forum will develop specifications that enable access devices, switches, and network controllers from different vendors to interoperate in service provider facilities.
The vendors and carriers hope to speed development of multiservice carrier networks that can handle voice, video, and data traffic.
Currently, carrier central offices are dominated by single-vendor platforms that combine the access, switching, and control functions.
The initial focus of the MSF will be switches capable of using ATM, the predominant technology that service providers are deploying to handle multiple traffic types in the central office.
"These networks will support not only ATM, but also IP and frame-relay services, and can significantly reduce the cost of providing these services," said Morgan Littlewood, director of marketing for the Multiservice Switching Unit at Cisco, in California.
Analysts said the MSF's goal is long overdue, but time will tell if the vendors can settle on standards.
Any group initiated by Cisco and its partner, Bellcore, might end up rubbing other vendors the wrong way, said Frank Dzubeck, president of Communications Network Architects, a consultant company in Washington.
"If 'open' means one or two vendors dominating, then something's wrong, and things would go back to the way it was before," Dzubeck said. "The buyer would lose."
Officials said the MSF plans to utilise standards developed by existing bodies.
An accepted set of interfaces for products such as voice gateways, ATM and IP switches, and separate network control devices will allow service providers to build multiservice networks without independently certifying each element, according to officials of companies involved in the initiative.
Services could be rolled out more quickly, and the standards would foster competition and downward pressure on costs.
The MSF's founding members have proposed implementations of an architecture for multiservice networks and of the Virtual Switch Interface protocol for independent devices to control switches.
Officials said the proposals already under way could be completed within nine months, and future standards could be established within 12 to 18 months.
Information about the Multiservice Switching Forum can be found at www.msforum.org.