Conference takes a peek at next generation nets

While no one has forgotten the up and down ride taken by the network industry in recent years, speakers at this week's Next Generation Networks Conference in Boston say there is plenty of reason to be positive about what lies ahead.

The mass adoption of mobile phones -- one speaker said 500 million such devices are expected to be sold worldwide this year -- means more content and network traffic will be generated, and that means new network services will be offered and that net infrastructure will get upgraded, they said.

Conference Chairman David Passmore, who is Burton Group's director of networking and telecom research, pointed to a diversity of new applications as well. He cited the merging of instant messaging, presence and VoIP applications with video as well as the emergence of average end uses as content producers. He also highlighted the adoption of RFID, and though he described applications using the short-distance wireless technology as unlikely to generate huge amounts of bandwidth, he did say it could change the "symmetry" of network traffic so that there is an increase in upstream traffic.

Networks and services will also need to be adapted to handle a diversity of performance requirements, he said.

Early adopters are already replacing frame relay, ATM and private line networks with Internet-based services that promise "10 times the bandwidth for one-tenth the price," Passmore said. Opportunities exist for companies such as GoRemote and Virtela that serve as virtual network operators piecing together existing networks into global service platforms, he said.

But despite the opportunities for carriers to handle new traffic -- Passmore said 'Net traffic is still growing 80 percent to 100 percent a year -- many questions remain about how best to do so.

"One of the biggest unresolved issues is where intelligence should reside," he said, offering up the network core and the network edge as possibilities.

In addition to such technology questions are business environment questions. Passmore discussed the possibility of ILECS heading into a "death spriral" if they are not able to generate enough revenue from new fiber deployments before revenue from traditional voice services dries up. With fiber to each subscriber costing as much as US$3,000, the ILECS need Wall Street's confidence and can't afford financial stumbles, he said.

The future of the IXCs is also a question mark. Passmore said it is "not beyond the realm of possibility" that traditional IXCs such as AT&T and MCI wind up getting acquired given that they no longer have any "natural competitive advantages."

Next generation networks are actually affected more today by business and regulatory issues than technology issues, Passmore said.

During a panel on network innovation, venture capitalists Rod Randall (Vesbridge Partners) and Bart Stuck (Signal Lake), weighed in with their thoughts on where investment dollars are going.

Randall said a more intelligent network is inevitable and that new investment is needed to development such an infrastructure.

"The stupid network is a stupid idea," he said. "Stupid networks lead to stupid investments and business models."

Service provider opportunities include supporting what Randall dubbed "Moogle," a mobile iteration of search engines such as Google that would give end users access to information they require wherever they are. Using a mobile device, an end users might exploit speech recognition technology to ask a question and then receive information in speech and graphical formats, he said.

"Push to services" -- an offshoot of push to talk -- in which end users can push a button to receive any number of services might be another opportunity, Randall said. He also expects net security services to sell. Customers shouldn't have to update their security software every time a new vulnerability is discovered, he said.

Service providers should also rework their networks so that they can offer "gear-shifting networks" that give end users the ability to request faster connectivity at certain times and enable Web site operators to give visitors better net service while on their Web sites, Randall said.

Stuck said huge opportunities lie ahead in storage and servers. He referred to the giant server and storage requirements of companies such as America Online Inc. and Google.

Built-in 10G bit/sec connectivity in today's PCs should also stir up demand for speedier network switches, whether or not end users actually need 10G bit/sec connectivity right away, he said.

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