In the latter half of the decade, it became obvious to many that the staid hidebound carrier-equipment industry was in for some dramatic changes.
- The Telecom Act of 1996 made it much easier to become a local-exchange carrier; the CLEC was born.
- Voice-over-packet began to emerge from the hobbyist phase.
- Fax-over-packet became an ITU standard.
- Cable operators began to provision for convergence, and standards development began in earnest.
- DSL became available.
- DSPs became an order-of-magnitude more powerful.
- The “access network” emerged as the technology battleground for facilities-based competitive carriers.
- Technology churn and market growth made time-to- market the catch phrase of the access-network market.
This convergence of events created an opening into the carrier-equipment market?in particular the access network?for the enabling-technology vendor. There is now an opportunity to bring the value-adding efficiencies of the open-communications business ecosystem to the carrier- equipment market.
Why the opportunity? The access network — just a few years old — was birthed as a competitive animal. Venture funding quickly filled the vacuum and scores of companies were founded to develop and market the multi-service access, media-gateway, and service-platform systems the new CLEC industry needed to get to market quickly.
Why quickly? A new market that generated a land-grab mentality is one reason. Another is technology churn. Standards were new, conflicting, or non-existent. For the competitive carrier, standing by to wait and observe would not be rewarded. Only by jumping in and getting to market could a market entrant hope to be able to hold on after the incumbent carriers finally entered the fray. But how much can you compress the schedule of a project that must develop a proprietary chassis and backplane? What about ASIC-based media-processing chips, and media technologies from several licensors? Over 36 months is the norm.
But adopting a value-adding platform or intermediate technologies and products can enable an equipment vendor to get to market in 12 months. Equipment vendors must weigh the value of developing proprietary platforms and their attendant time-to-market and investment penalty against focusing development investment on application-level value. This can be done by leveraging the lowered development investment and time-to-market advantages of value-adding platforms.
But must it be an all-or-nothing proposition? Many of the available value-adding platforms are closed architectures between the application interface and the resource board’s backplane connector. If the OEM’s product strategy requires a media technology not offered by the platform vendor, does that mean the OEM must develop the entire platform? Suppose the OEM’s product strategy requires proprietary hardware, must the OEM also develop a host-level environment? What about third-party media technologies on the platform vendor’s DSP-resource board? Must the OEM add hardware to support third-party media technologies even when the primary platform vendor’s DSP boards have adequate MIPS headroom?
These questions, although raised in the early ‘90s were never as important as they are today. Why? Because the needs of the access-network equipment developer are more complex than the enterprise equipment developer that has been the mainstay of open-communications for its first 15 years. Not only does the access-network market vendor have more complex needs, but often the capital resources to meet them. So, for example, if CompactPCI does not support the OEM’s product strategy a new backplane and proprietary boards must be developed ($3-5M); third-party media technologies must be licensed ($2M); a media-processing software framework must be developed ($500K-1M); a client-server telephony environment must be developed ($3M); the platform can then be integrated and tested ($750K).
CompactPCI finally gives the carrier-equipment OEM the option of avoiding the very large development investment that is the consequence of choosing a proprietary backplane. CompactPCI gives the OEM the option of choosing one board from vendor A and another from vendor B to complement the functionality of the OEM’s proprietary board. But what about a hardware- and vendor-independent integrating software environment? Current industry practice is for each board to include a proprietary host-level software framework, with each duplicating common system-level functions such as media- specific file I/O, system configuration and management, resource and client authentication, and call routing. So in many ways it is impracticable for the OEM to select resource boards from multiple vendors, this restraint on vendor and, therefore, functional flexibility pushes many OEMs to the all- proprietary option.
So, what is the answer? A more decomposed industry. The industry must examine the need for a more finely partitioned modular industry structure to give the carrier-equipment OEM the necessary options. The all-or-nothing approach to open- communications must give way to an “a la carte” value-adding industry structure, as shown below.
This begins with an examination of the five major aspects of a digital-media telecommunications system platform: the system chassis, along with system-level processor boards and operating systems, the DSP-resource and network- access boards, the media technologies (DSP-based stream- processing software), the software environment to support integrated-media DSP software on shared DSP resources (media framework), and the application-software framework.