Friday, September 03, 2004

BellSouth Network Strategy Revealed

A very significant gathering of academics, technologists, economic developers and political leaders took place at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge on Thursday and Friday. The occasion was Louisiana Optical Network Initiative (LONI) conference where plans for the development of a statewide research consortium among private and public universities tied together by a fiber optic network, which is itself connected into a national fiber optic-connected research network, were discussed.

There were two reasons I was happy I attended. The first was that Governor Kathleen Blanco announced ten years of funding for the project (hit the headline of this entry for The Advocate's story on that). That's a bold stroke and one that I believe will pay big dividends for our state in the years to come. The second was that I was there when Alan R. Blackburn spoke.

Who is Alan Blackburn? He is Research Director of Advanced Network Architecture Concepts for BellSouth Science and Technology. In his brief talk, Mr. Blackburn laid out BellSouth's network strategy and made some statements of fact that are relevant to our discussion regarding fiber to the premises and LUS's intention to deploy it here.

"Our strategy can be summed up by saying that we are converting the corporation from electrical to optical," Blackburn declared. "We are moving from circuits to packets."

He said BellSouth is putting significant energy into transforming the company's operations which flows from this fundamental change of network architecture. "We are moving from narrow band to broadband."

Blackburn said BellSouth is committed to wringing as much productivity out of its copper network investments as possible, but will do that by driving fiber optics out of the company's central offices out closer to homes and offices. Blackburn believes BellSouth will, at some point in the future, be able to deliver 28 megabits per second of capacity to homes on its network using this fiber feeding copper strategy.

Still, he made it clear that the ultimate network that BellSouth envisions is a fiber to the home network. In fact, he said BellSouth currently has one million fiber to the home customers.

In addition, he said many of BellSouth's corporate customers have deployed their own fiber networks and that BellSouth is managing those networks for them, emphasizing security and business continuity.

Blackburn said the company is interested in utilizing broadband wireless in its metro networks, creating a seamless network in which handheld phones would always have internet access, and could utilize both cellular and WiFi technologies to do that as well as maintaining voice applications.

In what may be news to the company's Louisiana business customers, Blackburn said the company is "moving away from ATM and Frame Relay services." The company is moving to Internet Protocol and Ethernet in its metro networks. He claimed that BellSouth has "the largest metro Ethernet network in North America based on the number of switches deployed." The company also uses wave division multiplexing (WDM) extensively. This is the technology that turns each color in the spectrum of a laser beam into a separate communications channel.

Blackburn said the company is working with researchers to develop the means to deploy video services over its DSL networks (again, using fiber to help push more capacity over copper infrastructure). He explained that the company believes that developing the ability to deliver video (and then having the video to deliver) is critical to the company's future. Think in terms of their competitive profile versus Cox; Cox can bundle cable with internet and phone service. BellSouth has no video service to bundle, leaving it with only internet and phone service to bundle and discount.

Blackburn said the company is actively seeking what he called disruptive technologies. One example he gave would be some combination of instant messaging that included a shared video feed. He said this would enable people to instant message while watching a movie or program 'together' from their separate locations.

Finally, Blackburn said he completely buys into a vision of what BellSouth needs to focus on in order to prosper in the future that was laid out by motivational speaker Ken Blanchard at a seminar Blackburn attended a while back. That vision: "It's not about satisfying the customer. It's about creating raving fans of your business." From what I can tell, they've got the first part down cold; it's part two that will require some heavy work.

It was a pretty enlightening few minutes, which came across as a pretty ringing endorsement of the technology approach that LUS wants to use here. The chief difference is that LUS wants to bring this technology to every home and business, not just those who live the gated communities and high-end developments. And, LUS wants to bring this technology here sooner than BellSouth has determined we should have access to it.

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