Old telecom service habits die hard

If there's anything to glean from AT&T winning a recent Leadership award from Frost & Sullivan for SONET services, it's that this decades-old technology still has plenty of utility left in it.

Okay, I know what you're thinking: SONET is so 1980s and IP/Ethernet is today's vogue fashion. Like everyone else in telecom, I agree that an all IP/Ethernet vision will eventually eclipse the old stodgy TDM network, but in the near-term there's still plenty of life left in traditional SONET and hybrid Ethernet over SONET services.  

In the release announcing AT&T's award, Frost reported that SONET services were a $3.15 billion industry in 2008. And while next-generation networks like Ethernet and MPLS (Multi-protocol Label Switching) will continue to challenge SONET, Frost & Sullivan does not expect an overall decline for many years. 

While IP/Ethernet continues to enhance its carrier grade status with OAM and monitoring capabilities, there's a trust and comfort factor that telcos and large enterprise customers have come to know with SONET services.

At the same time, AT&T continues expand its Ethernet fortunes, offering a host of IP/Ethernet and Ethernet over SONET offerings for carrier and enterprise customers. But this isn't your grandfather's SONET. AT&T's Optical Mesh service, for example, enables customers to allocate SONET bandwidth as needed.  

The ongoing desire for SONET and legacy transport services became even more evident to me during a conversation about Packet Optical Networking Platforms with Verizon's Glenn Wellbrock, Verizon's director of backbone network design.

While he acknowledged that yes Ethernet and IP are a big part of their service portfolio and transport network future via the deployment of PONP platforms from Fujitsu and Tellabs, SONET continues to maintain a strong presence in their network. In particular, wireless carriers continue to use Ethernet over SONET as their wireless backhaul mechanism of choice.

"The packet functionality in the Fujitsu and Tellabs PONP equipment has been less used so far mostly due to a lack of demand," explained Wellbrock. "It's not that we don't have a strong demand for Ethernet, but the problem has been it's generally been as private line or Ethernet over SONET. As a general rule so far, and this is something I expect to see change in 2010, but up till now most Ethernet is delivered from end to end on top of SONET."

Ongoing demand for dedicated SONET and traditional circuit-based services is not just a telco mentality, however. Cable operators are also finding that they need to have telco-grade circuit services in their holster to compete for the business user's dollar.

Motorola told me yesterday that while cable is rolling out Fiber to the Business-based services, they are asking for telco-grade elements to be included in the equipment they purchase.

"The cable industry has shown more interest in Fiber to the business, but when they ask us about ONTs their first question is do we have T1 or E1 capabilities," said Floyd Wagoner, senior manager for marketing for Motorola's Access Division. "Right away, we go back to old school because they need to sell the interfaces that the enterprises are used to purchasing."

It's clear that while Ethernet and IP are the ultimate transport and service future, old telecom service habits like SONET and T1 aren't going to die anytime soon. --Sean