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Bandwidth hunger driving high-speed data

Wed, 07/31/1996 - 8:00pm
David J. Freeman, Senior Consultant, Digital Equipment Corp.

The continuing explosive growth of the Internet and the U.S. Telecommunications Act of 1996 have kicked into high-gear plans, pilots and development of high-speed data networks to homes, schools, offices and many other institutions.

An applications-driven market is developing with an increasing need for connectivity and greater bandwidth. This need is driving the cable industry to provide high-speed data networks with bandwidth capacities to satisfy the full-scale delivery of video, voice and data. Electronic commerce, telemedicine, knowledge acquisition through the electronic delivery of educational and training materials, video-on-demand or near-video-on-demand, home entertainment, electronic home shopping and a host of other applications are finding their way into cable industry-based data networks.

A different animal

These data networks are totally different from networks which deliver television programming to homes and schools. To enable interactive applications, cable-based data networks using either coaxial cable, hybrid fiber/coax (HFC) or all fiber must have the capabilities of providing a two-way data stream along with delivering regular television programs. They use segments of both the forward and reverse channels for the receipt and transmission of data. To ensure the activation of the return path, network sizing, network management and data security must be carefully considered by the MSO during the design phase of any such network.

Enhanced connectivity needs

Powerful PCs require dependable high-speed access to these high bandwidth data networks that V.34 cannot satisfy. This has provided MSOs with a business opportunity to support the enhanced connectivity needs with cable modems, both for LAN-to-LAN and residential deployment.

Many of today's current cable modems have different approaches to delivering data, and varying capabilities. Computability and interoperability problems may possibly be solved by conversion to baseband Ethernet at a cable headend router. The IEEE 802.14 Standards Committee, as well as some other organizations, is driving toward an industrywide cable modem standard.

In the meantime, MSOs must ensure that network subnetting, data path management and other incompatibility issues are carefully planned for to protect their current or future investments in cable modems prior to the agreement on final standards.

Many MSOs are currently planning, designing and implementing high-speed data networks for telephony, on-line services and Internet access.

This process, which began a few years ago, has had some notable and successful implementations, including:

  • Schools in Hawaii have been working closely with Oceanic Cable, a Time Warner subsidiary, that is providing inter-school data communications as it upgrades the network. This program will eventually connect 360 schools located on six islands. The broadband data network interconnects schools and libraries to facilitate distance learning, video-conferencing and Internet access.
  • Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing, Mich. needed to network 67 medical group practices located within a 15-mile radius of MSU. The university's bandwidth-hungry applications featured graphical interfaces, medical imaging and patient record keeping. To support these applications, MSU approached TCI Cablevision of Mid-Michigan, which had a rebuilt fiber optic cable system. Trials, which began two years ago, involved a system integrator and product supplier. This network is growing and accommodating other high-speed data networking needs throughout the MSU community, including school connectivity and Internet access.
  • Last summer, MCI Telecommunications and Colorado Springs Cablevision conducted a telecommuting trial connecting a number of employees in a 62-mile area. The remote LAN access program connected 26 MCI employees working at home to their company's sophisticated computing environment with high-speed access over cable TV lines. It provided data speeds equal to what the employees had become accustomed to in their offices.

MSOs considering joining the data wave should review some key issues, including:

  • Does a good business case exist for the new venture?
  • Is there adequate financing?
  • When will the plant be upgraded?
  • Is there a plan to become an Internet service provider (ISP)?
  • What knowledgeable technical resources exist or are available through partnerships and alliances?
  • What is the rollout plan?
School district connectivity

A large number of cable operators are working on school district connectivity programs. Some are leveraging this investment to offer broadband networking services in health care, commercial and government sectors, to name but a few.

Funding of these independent school district (ISDs) data networking programs is mainly obtained through federal or state grants or through educational bonds. These bonds are primarily funded at a town or city level and paid for through local taxes. They are targeted at providing enhanced technology capabilities and Internet access for the schools.

Many towns and cities manage this process through technology forums. Still others enlist the services of independent technology consultants or system integrators who guide them through the technology choices, service options, investment decisions, rollout plans, implementation and ongoing customer support.

Payment for bandwidth

An issue of critical importance to the ISDs is how they pay the service provider for acquiring the required bandwidth for these networks. In some instances, funds from the bond or grant partially pay for the placement of fiber to the schools, providing, in essence, a private network for the school district. In other cases, multi-year "bandwidth leases" are signed with the service provider.

By entering into a multi-year lease agreement upfront with grant money or bond money, the school guarantees a certain usage at a known rate with reduced ongoing operational costs.

The down side for the ISD could be, if the funding proves inadequate, that the school may not have the money to fully implement all the applications that could be supported over the network. In the case of the MSO, not only does it provide a new and immediate revenue stream, but the relationship may also enhance the potential of offering data networking service to other customers. (See Figure 1.)

Throughout rural America, there are numerous examples of community-based networks. They are growing like a prairie fire. Some towns in Arkansas and Kansas have fully operational 10 megabit per second (Mbps) cable-based data networks connecting colleges, schools, libraries, hospitals, clinics, small businesses, town buildings and providing a source for Internet access.

These networks started off as LAN-to-LAN configurations; however, with the emergence of home cable modems, multiple system operators are well-poised to start residential deployment.

Community-based networking programs have already started to show some major benefits in the sharing of resources: MSOs have found that adjacent franchises can be networked together, thereby saving headend operational costs; MSOs are becoming ISPs; and small towns are networked, sharing assets such as libraries and medical centers.

Cable operators as service providers are faced with the challenge of designing and providing data networking services over their cable plants, most of which have varying capabilities.

Many of these cable plants are now in the process of being upgraded. Among the tasks that cable operators face is their ability to create cable headends which act as a point of presence for multiple communication connections to the Internet and other on-line services.

These cable headends, if they are to be effective in providing community-based services, must be able to provide connectivity to on-line information services such as America Online, CompuServe, the Microsoft Network and Prodigy. The headends must accommodate connectivity via ISDN, frame relay, Analog V.34, 10 Mbps and others. MSOs must ensure maximum network performance is achieved, interoperability issues are addressed, and above all, provide a secure, firewall-protected environment for their subscribers.

The number of technology offerings is immense. The MSOs, like the independent school districts, will need help in understanding these high-speed data networking technologies as they emerge. Knowledge and experience of how to apply these technologies will be necessary in order to develop and provide appropriate solutions for their needs. MSOs are already developing, partnering with, or are in the process of obtaining the services of experienced system integrators.

Having access to, or partnerships with these key integration resources will no doubt be critical.

An example of this can be seen in the pilot which is being conducted by Singapore Cablevision in conjunction with several high-tech organizations. The cable network could be scaled up to interconnect as many as 240,000 homes over the next five years. In Singapore, every home is wired for cable, regardless of whether the resident is a customer or not.

Forerunner of the Internet

The National Science Foundation Net (NSFNET) was founded years ago through the collaborative efforts of a number of organizations. NSFNET, the forerunner of today's Internet, has set an example of cooperation which continues today. Many colleges and universities are developing and fostering consortia relationships with industrial partners, national laboratories and other institutions in an evolving and ever-changing educational arena.

The primary objectives are to create a better educated workforce for the future through the creation and delivery of multimedia educational and training curricula. Some of these consortia are being sponsored and funded directly by NSF or through state Information Infrastructure, NSF and other state and national initiatives.

An example of this is at the University of Texas in its Automation and Robotics Research Institute (http://arriwww.uta.edu/arri/arrihp.html) that links together higher education, R&D and defense related technology providers and suppliers.

The latter organization is engaged in the transfer of R&D to the commercial sector. It is creating and developing new business practices for aerospace manufacturers, suppliers and small manufacturing enterprises.

It is also entering into joint development programs with high-tech prime contractors and government agencies and leading the way for the public sector to promote economic growth.

All of these activities will require sophisticated communications solutions. High-speed, cable-based data networking may well be one of these.

Electronic Commerce Net

Another example of MSO, educational and industrial collaboration is the Electronic Commerce Net (ECnet). This Metropolitan Area Network (MAN) initiative was conducted in Phoenix a couple of years ago by Times-Mirror (now owned by Cox Communications). The pilot program connected government prime contractors to their suppliers at speeds of up to 10 Mbps. The network facilitated collaborative real-time engineering, white boarding, videoconferencing across multiple sites and a secure data environment.

Colleges, by and large, have a wealth of computer expertise, and many of them are creating high-speed campus and inter-campus networks. Some of these collegiate networks are ATM-based solutions that support the delivery of voice, video and data for distance learning programs. Distance learning is now being viewed as mandatory as the student population is becoming "virtual."

New collegiate networks provide connectivity to the MSO's HFC or fiber-based cable plants for off-campus and Internet connectivity. Products with multi-switching capabilities can provide a flexible, multi-gigabit platform for building these switched virtual networks.

Taking advantage of ATM

These products can create the basis for technology independent backplane design. They allow network managers to create, monitor and reconfigure networks using popular technologies such as standard Ethernet, Token Ring, and FDDI, and provide high-speed data networking performance at 100 Mb Ethernet and ATM speeds.

Digital Services has planned, designed, and implemented numerous major networking projects including many at educational institutions. At Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, a fiber optic campus network connects buildings spread over 44 acres. The new high-speed data network will embrace voice, video, data, satellite links and Internet connectivity over the same cable infrastructure to serve a population of 2,000 students and faculty.

Memorial University in St. John's, in Newfoundland, Canada, has built a high-speed enterprise network designed to alleviate poor network performance and to provide extra capacity for a future generation of data-intensive applications and multimedia educational tools.

The network features 9,000 connections in 27 buildings throughout the university, each linked to the campus wide backbone using ATM switching technologies. The network uses a variety of technologies including Dedicated Ethernet, Fast Ethernet, Switched Ethernet and FDDI.

The Memorial University network takes advantage of ATM in a Wide Area Network where long distance connectivity is a requirement. This ATM-based network may eventually connect as many as 11,000 users.

Syracuse University

The Maxwell School at Syracuse University in central New York has a sophisticated multimedia network with fiber optic, Ethernet and cable TV connections. Voice, data, videoconferencing and Internet access are available for students and faculty. Under arrangements with Adelphia Cable Communications, the school can view certain cable TV programs and digitize portions of the content for inclusion in PC-based presentations. Students and faculty are applying technology to share ideas and information on campus.

The author's company designed and installed the network under a technology partnership with the Maxwell School, which this year was named by U.S. News and World Report as America's best graduate School of Public Administration (see Figure 2).

Cooperation will be required by service providers, vendors and customers as new technologies and applications emerge. Collaboration is the key to future successful full-scale deployments as the high-speed data market expands.


Author Information
About the author
David Freeman is a senior consultant with Digital Equipment Corp. and is based in Dallas, Texas. He has been with Digital for 23 years, and formerly managed a consulting organization for the company.

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