Thanks largely to a 1998 World Trade Organisation agreement on telecommunications that has introduced competition into dozens of international markets prices for international voice and data connections have started to drop dramatically. In some cases those prices are far below what they were just two years ago.
That trend makes it especially notable that two long-standing but not very high-profile international carriers have grown their revenues 81 per cent and 50 per cent, respectively, in the past year. These are not the hyped global ventures with names like Concert Communications and Global One Communications that attract attention more for their games of alliance musical chairs than for services.
Take a look at Infonet Services and Equant Network Services, two companies with decades of experience creating dedicated and dial-up connections with on-the-ground back-office and customer support, keyed off long-established relationships with national carriers.
While AT&T, WorldCom and Sprint have struggled to find the right international partners, Infonet and Equant - both largely emphasising ATM and frame relay connection, but also now pushing IP - have been responding enthusiastically to requests for proposal and winning lots of bids.
Last year, Infonet inked multinational deals with leading ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi, specialty packaging company Sealed Air, health care operator Allegan and Leading Hotels of the World, and others. Equant has long-standing deals with Xerox, Reuters and others.
The irony is both companies appear to have embarked on partnership deals of their own that may result in a challenge to the better-known, major-carrier alliances.
The first thing you see when you look at both carriers is a real global network instead of a lot of network-to-network interfaces between carriers that allied for strategic rather than engineering purposes.
Even at that, Infonet changed its basic network architecture about 12 to 18 months ago. The company used to run essentially a flat global network based on implementation of 150 to 200 Nortel Passport ATM switches, says Bob DaGiau, Infonet's vice president of global intranet services marketing. Then it introduced a core switching layer, currently based on Marconi (formerly Fore Systems) ATM switches, while retaining user-to-network interface ports on the Passport switches, which also support frame relay.
If Infonet decides to move to a global SoNet or wave-division multiplexing core, it could do so without affecting its access layer, DaGiau says. Even though Infonet has its own switching architecture worldwide, it tends to lease transport capacity from legacy or next-generation carriers wherever it can find the bandwidth. As bandwidth costs have dropped, Infonet has moved to buy fat pipes from whoever's digging them, although "there still are numerous spots around the world where lease is the only option", DaGiau says.
Equant also has built its network in recent years with more than 1000 Passports. Equant is the successor to a long-established airline network called SITA, which built its fame by installing an earlier Nortel X.25 platform called DPN-100 at more than 1000 airports worldwide, and which Equant still maintains in its net. Using that platform, Equant has emphasised converged services recently, with its Integrated Voice and Data service introduced in 1998. It was one of the first genuinely converged services offering a choice of frame relay or ATM access.
Infonet has a different approach to convergence. Its current main voice-and-data service, called Global Multimedia Service, is akin to a managed frame relay access device program, although Infonet officials avoid labelling it voice over frame relay. Customer voice traffic is sent over a single, frame relay access pipe, but Infonet maintains four classes of service in its backbone network - three for data and one for voice. 2Mbit/sec carried over frame relay, and the options from 2Mbit/sec and above on ATM.
Next up for both carriers is Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS), an emerging standard that has recently been employed by AT&T and WorldCom in their domestic US networks for hybrid IP/ATM networks. Using Cisco routers at the edge of Infonet and Equant's networks, MPLS enables software in carrier switches to carve multiple intranets and extranets out of a user-to-network interface (which can be frame relay) from each customer site by attaching VPN tags to each user's traffic.