Hitchin' a ride
Despite a recent ruling that doesn’t require cable to carry
unaffiliated ISPs on its broadband freeways, a growing number
of ISPs are merging on via cable trials and deployments
After spending the early years cruising along high-speed thoroughfares devoid of unaffiliated ISPs, several of the nation's largest cable operators are starting to build the on-ramps necessary to share the road.
In turn, many of those ISPs, accustomed to plodding along the much slower side streets of the dial-up world, are beginning to put the pedal to the metal and merge onto cable's broadband speedway.
The cable industry's multiple ISP issue spans the political, operational and technical arenas. Fortunately for cable operators, all three components are well on their way to being sorted out–so much so that several MSOs are attempting to demonstrate through trials and deployments that adding Internet service providers to their high-speed grids should not be weighed down by government regulation, but instead evolve through business relationships with both national and smaller, regional ISPs.
They have good reason to do so. In mid-March, the Federal Communications Commission, in a 3-to-1 vote, defined cable modem services as an "information" service rather than a "telecommunications" service. Considered a big win for the cable industry, the ruling meant U.S. cable operators were not mandated to offer rival ISPs access to their high-speed networks.
Time Warner Cable remains the exception, however, thanks to conditions affixed to the merger between America Online Inc. and Time Warner Inc. Concessions from the Federal Trade Commission stipulated that the MSO open up its networks to unaffiliated ISPs before AOL could be offered over TWC's hybrid fiber/coax network.
Though it takes money and time to connect ISPs to an operator's network, MISP (multiple ISP) deployments, coupled with additional marketing efforts linked to them, have helped Time Warner Cable goose its cable modem subscriptions by 20 to 25 percent. That came as a pleasant surprise to some, who suspected it would cannibalize the MSO's base of Road Runner customers. So far, Time Warner Cable is offering access to multiple ISPs in 30 of its 39 divisions. In addition to national ISPs such as AOL and EarthLink, Time Warner Cable has also bolstered its regional roster with providers such as Internet Junction and NYConnect Cable Internet.
The recent FCC ruling didn't come down without its share of criticism, however. EarthLink, which has MISP deals with Time Warner Cable, AT&T Broadband and Comcast Corp., in a twist of irony, called the decision "bad law and bad policy." EarthLink wasn't alone, though, as telcos such as Verizon Communications, which has to open up its network to other DSL providers, and consumer advocate groups like the Media Access Project, also voiced their displeasure.
Despite the ruling, it appears that cable's MISP era is inevitable, as MSOs beyond Time Warner Cable have already conducted several trials and are preparing to move ahead with commercial deployments.AT&T BROADBAND: ONE ON DECK, ONE IN THE WINGS
One of the earliest MISP entrants was AT&T Broadband, which concluded a $20 million "ISP Choice" technical trial in Boulder, Colo. last year that involved four ISPs and 320 customers.
Although the MSO was planning some additional tests of ISP Choice, those slowed to a crawl when AT&T Broadband had to shift its top data priority to the @Home conversion. With that now out of the way, AT&T Broadband is moving forward on two commercial MISP launches in Seattle, Wash. and the Boston, Mass. area.
"Because Seattle was part of the original @Home network, and we've migrated them over to the new and improved ISP-enabled network, [Seattle's] going to go first," says Susan Marshall, AT&T Broadband's senior vice president of advanced services strategy.
The plan is for the operator to launch ISP Choice in Seattle this summer, and then offer it in Boston, a former MediaOne/Road Runner property that is being merged onto the MSO's network platform, sometime "before it turns cold again," Marshall says.
In the meantime, AT&T Broadband has started marketing discussions with EarthLink, the first ISP to sign a formal deal with the MSO, and with regional providers such as Massachusetts-based Net1Plus and Seattle-based ISP Internet Central. "We're working through how we talk about ISP Choice in relationship to our house brand service," Marshall says. "We've got a lot of marketing work to do, but I think we'll be on track for launches."
When that happens, AT&T Broadband expects to deploy a protocol similar to the policy-based routing technique it used for the Boulder trial.
Although the scaling abilities of policy-based routing have been questioned, Marshall believes AT&T Broadband will be able to keep pace because it will use routers originally optimized for source-based routing rather than destination routers mocked up for MISP via software changes.
"When you look at the fact that our systems have scaled as we approach 2 million [cable modem] customers, it's not like all of the sudden we're going to become 3 million overnight," she says. "To the extent that our customer growth continues, we've got a good handle on how to scale all of our systems to meet that customer hit."
Once AT&T Broadband installs the requisite source-based routing gear, the MSO could later layer in MPLS to make the system more efficient for MISP.
Marshall said the MSO is in discussions with several other ISPs of national and regional flavors. Once on board, the ISPs and AT&T Broadband need to exchange registration data, as well as customer, billing and network information. Those interfaces already are largely defined for AT&T Broadband, Marshall says, noting that the MSO will probably use the interfaces EarthLink developed for the original Boulder trial. "That's one of the reasons why we think we'll get [EarthLink] up quickly."
But there are questions about how many different ISPs can be supported by a single cable system. "There's likely to be a point when [the system] starts choking," Marshall says. In Boulder, where AT&T Broadband employed retrofitted destination routers, "we knew that once we hit 10 different ISPs and address blocks that we would start to see degradation. With optimized source-based routers, that threshold ought to be pushed out."
Although ISP Choice in Seattle and Boston will initially offer one service tier, when AT&T Broadband starts tiering its house brand, it will also offer it on a non-discriminatory basis to other ISPs on the network, Marshall says.
"I think the spotlight has moved off what the technology issues are and is moving to the operational issues," Marshall says. "Operationally, a trial with 320 customers is not a launch (compared) to a market that has 2 million homes passed."
She adds that the MSO will focus on operational challenges–to make sure AT&T Broadband understands the installation and customer care issues, and how it troubleshoots with the ISPs. "I really think that will be the next hill to attack," she says. Regardless, offering ISP Choice "is going to be good for our business," Marshall predicts. "There's going to be a greater chance to increase our penetration, because there are some people who are very loyal to their ISPs."COMCAST: DON'T REGULATE US
Although Time Warner Cable must offer network access to unaffiliated ISPs as a condition of its merger with America Online, don't expect Comcast to offer that concession as a quid pro quo for approval to acquire AT&T Broadband. At least, not without a huge fight.
In late April, Comcast President Brian Roberts told a Senate subcommittee on Antitrust, Business Rights and Competition that the MSO wouldn't agree to a condition similar to what the FTC imposed on AOL Time Warner. "We don't want to get the financial community concerned that there is going to be regulation of something we just invented," he said, referring to Comcast's ongoing technical MISP trial in the Philadelphia area.
Comcast is also preparing to offer access to United Online's ISPs (NetZero and Juno) in Nashville, Tenn. and Indianapolis, Ind., and to use those deployments as a template for subsequent MISP rollouts.
Comcast could have Nashville and Indianapolis up and running by the time this article is published. The MSO said in late February that it would launch NetZero and Juno in those two markets by the end of May. Financial terms of that agreement weren't disclosed, but United Online, which pulled out of AT&T Broadband's initial Boulder pilot, said it expected to incur "little to no capital expenditures" with its Comcast launches.COX: ARKANSAS TRIAL IS FIRST STEP
Cox Communications got off the mark last September when it launched a technical MISP trial in El Dorado, Ark. The pilot is still up and running, and Cox has not announced when, or if, it plans to shut it down.
Though AT&T Broadband's initial trial in Boulder was via the Excite@Home network, Cox selected El Dorado because the network there is populated with next-generation CMTSs (ADC's Cuda 12000) and 100 percent owned and operated by Cox. "Having to work with yet another party was just going to complicate things," says Michael Hale, Cox's director of data engineering. Running the trial on Cox's own network "allows us to make the changes we feel we need to make [and] have complete visibility of the network."
In El Dorado, about 50 MISP trial participants are accessing the Internet either via AOL or EarthLink. Because of its technical nature and relatively small size (in terms of subscribers), Cox is using a policy-based routing technique in tandem with the CMTS.
Instead of using self-installation techniques, Cox personnel have handled the MISP hook-ups, says Hale, "because we wanted to make sure we got the customers up regardless of the ISP. If there were issues, we wanted to capture those personally."
Hale said EarthLink and AOL provided the installation CDs with the modifications necessary for them to hook into Cox's El Dorado network. Cox also supplies the IP addresses.
Because policy-based routing is fairly simple and straightforward, "we're seeing what we expected to see," Hale says. "We're watching the routers in the network...and we're spending most of our time looking at the performance of the routers and trying to determine how far policy-based routing can scale."
While the technical aspects of the trial in El Dorado are rather straightforward, it is bringing up additional operational questions related to what Cox might need to do for future trials or deployments. Those questions revolve around the type of equipment and the amount of capital that would be required to build a network to support multiple ISPs with policy-based routing, and what changes Cox would have to implement to support MPLS.
"We're taking a look at what we could do to our network without major changes and additions to it," Hale says. But supporting MPLS might present some interesting challenges. "Forcing everyone to MPLS would be difficult if MPLS doesn't play well with ATM," he says. "You have weird issues creep up when you try to force technology implementations that are not specific to cable, but are specific to the rest of the IP and networking industry."
At the same time, Cox also is starting to sift through questions that are tied to the operational relationship with multiple ISPs, including billing and customer support. "The technical trial has pointed out that those will be the heavy issues for us," Hale says. Like AT&T Broadband's Marshall, Hale says a standard method for those relationships needs to be hammered out (see sidebar, p. 8).
"There are still a lot of issues that most of the large MSOs and large ISPs need to work out. It could get messy," he says, noting that cable has to be careful not to find itself in the same predicament that DSL found itself in when customers tried to figure out which entity to call for technical support.
Cox has not made any formal steps toward another trial or deployment, but continues to gather hard data in El Dorado in the anticipation of more MISP work. "It could be an adaptation of the existing trial that's ongoing, or a new trial," Hale says.HARNESSING THE MOVING PARTS
Although national technical standards related to MISP are on hold, billing and OSS vendors have chipped in to smooth out the business-to-business processes.
CSG Systems Inc., an original CableB2B participant, for example, has marketed its CSG.net product to help solve the back office and billing issues tied to multiple ISP environments. So far, CSG is participating in 11 cable MISP sites.
"Our Dot-net product is an extension or way of making the platform even better," says CSG Executive Director Steve Borelli. He points to three major enhancements that are designed to make the system flex beyond a flat monthly service fee: a real-time rating engine (for music downloads, perhaps); the capability to handle metered services; and usage-based services, which can bill for additional hours.
Borelli says difficulties can arise when multiple ISPs start to factor into the cable equation, including who takes the service calls, handles service activation and billing, and who orders the cable modems for new subscribers. Is the ISP or broadband service provider taking care of those elements, or are they shared between them?
"The cable company and the ISP have to be in-sync," he adds. "The key to all of that is data coordination and hooking up the system so these communications can occur on both sides of the business."
Early technical trials "over-engineered" those efforts by bringing in myriad companies to cope with ratings, Web self-care and service availability checks. "That approach really didn't work," Borelli says. "There were too many moving parts." Instead, he suggests the use of common APIs (application programming interfaces) to help scale MISP networks and help build them faster and more efficiently.
Working so closely with MSOs on the back office and customer care requirements have made some ISPs, especially smaller ones, shy away from it.
"The difference with cable and DSL is that DSL looks like they wholesale the service to us and we sell it," says Tom Andrus, vice president of products and services for EarthLink. "With cable, we treat it like a joint customer, because [operators] really look to the ISPs to show that same dedication to customer support."
In the case of Time Warner Cable, EarthLink and the MSO can handle service calls. "It depends on the situation," Andrus says. "It's a time and people investment. That puts a lot of strain on smaller ISPs."
Occasionally, that investment proves too much for an ISP to handle. In Boulder, AT&T Broadband originally invited about 10 ISPs, but ended up with four, after a handful dropped out, including MSN, FriendlyWorks and United Online, after they realized how much energy and money they'd have to put toward the project.