Gartner: Network convergence still has a long way to go

The convergence of voice and data networks with various services holds promise, but it is still far from being universally deployed, said Gartner Inc. Senior Analyst Juan Ignacio Fernández, at a meeting here on Monday.

Network convergence will eventually lead to the universal use of IP (Internet Protocol) for all services -- telephony, Internet access, and audio and video transmission -- but currently, simpler services, such as Internet call waiting, SMS (Short Message System) and e-mail forwarding to wireless devices, constitute the bulk of convergent offerings.

Speaking to an audience of Argentine telecommunication executives, Fernández said that there has been too much hype around convergence, and that there is some resistance to it in several markets. Especially in the U.S. and Latin America, the market demand for convergent networks is weak, and carriers prefer to continue investing on proven TDM (time division multiplex) technologies that let them provide SMS and other simpler convergent services. Globally, the most successful deployments of convergent networks have been made in Europe and Asia, he said.

Still, as data transmission begins to predominate, gradually the focus is changing toward full IP network implementations. When fully deployed, these networks allow all sorts of advanced technologies such as IP Centrex, IP trunking and VoIP (voice over IP) VPN, he said.

Centrex is a technology that allows the digitizing of all internal and external telephone traffic in an enterprise (including the extensions), using a section of the telephone company exchange as a private branch exchange. Centrex relieves the companies from having to purchase, maintain and upgrade their own private branch exchanges, and often allows them to join remote branches located in distant cities as part of their local branch exchange, all for the same price.

IP trunking allows the transmission of data packets through IP backbones. The benefits include having just one network that can manage all types of traffic, instead of having to deploy specialized and separate networks for voice, data and video. Finally, VPNs (virtual private networks) allow the creation of multiple private networks over a public network system. This results in cost reductions both for carriers and customers, because virtual networks share spectrum and resources, and are permanently reconfiguring themselves for the best performance, based on demand.

In Latin America, these technologies are slowly taking hold. In Brazil, the new telecom carriers are contemplating using softswitch technology in order to expand their coverage area, without deploying new physical networks, Fernández said.

Soft switches are software programs that serve as bridges between the public switched telephone networks and newer VoIP networks. By using them, a telephone operator can route its long distance calls through existing IP networks. The quality of the calls, however, is strongly dependent on the bandwidth and "latency," or speed, of the IP network. For results comparable to dedicated telephony networks, the IP networks and routers should be optimized for this service.

Full market deregulation is expected in Brazil by year end. Centrex is being used in México and Argentina, and VoIP is growing significantly in Colombia and Venezuela, according to a Gartner report.

Many carriers in Argentina have rebuilt and upgraded their networks and many are still underutilized, so this is preventing the migration to convergent technologies for now, Fernández said.

Some of the participants added that the present economic situation in Argentina is a major deterrent to further capital expenditure on networks. Besides, most carriers and enterprise customers in Argentina feel that the increased efficiencies provided by IP networks aren't too compelling yet, speakers said. Instead, carriers and subscribers are more interested in reducing costs and spending in other areas of the business.

According to Fernández, to assure the success of convergent networks an effort should be made toward standardization and a better definition of what new generation networks are, and what they should do. It is generally accepted that a so-called "new generation network" is one that has been designed to transmit both data and voice traffic.

For this, vendors and operators have created standard bodies such as the International Softswitch Forum (ISF) and the Multiservice Switching Forum (MSSF), that are creating standards and network architecture models.

"We can consider that we are in the first generation of unified (convergent) communications", Fernández said. In about one or two years there will be a second generation, with a much broader market deployment and acceptance, especially in Europe, Asia and a few Latin American markets, such as Colombia, Venezuela, Chile, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, he added.

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