Cable is ready to take on customers in business services sectors thanks to Carrier Ethernet’s maturity

It’s been an oft-heard refrain from MSOs that they’re serious about tapping into the commercial markets that have long been the roost of telcos. But now they’re adopting Carrier Ethernet, which is becoming a sturdy and dependable means of delivering business services to customers both small and large.

Standards make the world go round, and the Metro Ethernet Forum (MEF) is the organization making sure that there are standards for carrier-class services on Ethernet, and certifying that those who employ Carrier Ethernet are complying with those standards.

Because the telcos have had free rein in the commercial market for so long, they were the ones expected to benefit most from the MEF’s activities, but cable operators are becoming some of the most enthusiastic adopters of Carrier Ethernet. Cable operators and equipment vendors are leading a surge in MEF certification for services and devices (see Figure 1 on p. 26), helping to push Carrier Ethernet technology to impressive growth. A report earlier this year by Infonetics Research said Carrier Ethernet switch and router manufacturer revenues grew 132 percent from 2005 to 2006 with a forecast of $9.1 billion by 2010.

“The clear-cut advantage of Ethernet is the ability to size services according to customer need and seamlessly integrate the LAN with the WAN and beyond,” said Glenn Calafati, Cablevision’s Optimum Lightpath’s director of product development. “Service provider infrastructures are positively impacted as interoffice facilities are appropriately engineered to meet customer bandwidth requirements that scale with the growth of their business. Carrier Ethernet has matured and is a proven technology capable of providing robust services.”

While the MEF was primarily comprised of telcos in the early going, Cablevision’s Optimum Lightpath, in April of 2006, was the first cable operation to join the MEF. Since then, the MEF has seen an influx of cable concerns, including CableLabs, Comcast, SuddenLink and Brighthouse Networks this past summer.

“What the Metro Ethernet Forum has done with these certification waves is, No. 1, insure that we’re all carrier-grade, and No. 2, that we’re all talking about the same thing,” said Felipe Alvarez, president of RCN Business Solutions. “As we all sell it out to our target customers, they understand what they’re getting in the context of an Ethernet service.”

Making the MEF 14 grade
Carrier Ethernet offers service providers flexible, standardized carrier-class services such as point-to-point E-Line services, which include Ethernet Private Lines, Virtual Private Lines and Ethernet Internet Access, and multipoint E-LAN services. E-LAN services include MultiPoint Layer 2 VPNs and transparent LANs.

The MEF has been defining Carrier Ethernet standards in stages. MEF 9 defines some of the fundamental elements of Carrier Ethernet, including topology, Virtual Private Lines and Ethernet Private Lines, and services interfaces.

A number of cable operators, including Cox, RCN, Time Warner Cable and Optimum Lightpath, have already received their MEF 9 certification.

MEF certified services and devices
Figure 1: Growth in certification. Source: Metro Ethernet Forum

The next step for providers offering Carrier Ethernet services is conformance with newer MEF 14 certifications, which builds on MEF 9. Now, as certification for MEF 14 kicks in, cable operators are no longer playing catch-up.

“MEF 14 certification really begins to certify the performance levels of those interfaces and configurations,” said Kurt Fennell, VP of product management for Time Warner Cable Business Class. “Things like latency, jitter, packet loss and delay were all measured and our certification was based on the parameters that were set out by the Metro Ethernet Forum.”

This past summer, Time Warner Cable, RCN, and Optimum Lightpath crossed the finish line for MEF 14 certification at the same time as telcos such as AT&T and Embarq. Time Warner Cable used its New York division, where it has a large amount of deployed fiber, to test for MEF 14 with Iometrics, which performs certification testing for the MEF. TWC will test each one of its networks individually as it rolls MEF 14 across operating divisions and then regions.

From a vendor standpoint, MEF 14 evaluates the conformance of a product for its ability to deliver and measure performance attributes of a service, said Ben Legault, Ciena’s director of product marketing. In order to garner certification, a vendor’s product is submitted for independent lab testing.

“The platform’s implementation had to demonstrate the ability to measure the performance attributes of a service such as frame delay, frame delay variation and frame loss at per Ethernet virtual connections and per class of service levels,” Legault said. “This has to be consistent with the definitions of traffic management as given in MEF 10.”

This past spring, the MEF passed MEF 18, which addresses circuit emulation services for MSOs. What that means for MSOs is that they’ll be able to buy certified equipment that will allow them to carry T1 services over their Ethernet infrastructure.

“We expect that certification to be available around the end of the fourth quarter,” said Louise Wasilewski, who is the MEF’s co-chair of marketing and VP of business development for PhyFlex Networks. “The way we do certification is we always have a pilot program with those who stick their hands up first. After the vendor first wave, we will start work on the service provider wave. MEF 18 will be available to both service providers and vendors, but vendors first since certified equipment is in general a prerequisite for certified services,” she said.

Instead of having to build out a whole TDM infrastructure, if a cable operator has a business services customer that wants a T1 interface, it will be able to give them that interface, but backhaul it over its shared Ethernet infrastructure.

“A lot of businesses today do have T1s, so you have two options,” Wasilewski explained. “You can either construct a TDM network to offer T1s or buy T1 circuits from another provider, and resell them, or you can encourage them onto Ethernet. If you go the Ethernet route, you don’t have to build both a TDM and an Ethernet network. Many people buying T1s today could easily convert to an Ethernet interface. If they convert, then a common business offer is twice the bandwidth; for example, 3 Mbps for half the price they were paying for a T1.

“If you want to offer T1s using Ethernet, then you use circuit emulation. The MEF specification for circuit emulation is MEF 8, and the certification against MEF 8 is MEF 18.”

The service would be aimed at the smaller end of the commercial services spectrum for businesses that have a high subscriber count but low service bandwidth.

“The marketing benefit that would bring to MSOs is that they would be able to turn to business customers and say their T1s are as good as the next guy’s and the MEF has certified it to be so,” Wasilewski said.

Ethernet over coax
CableLabs’ entry into the MEF signals to vendors that this time cable is serious about deploying business services over both fiber and existing HFC plants. CableLabs is working on updating its Layer 2 (L2) VPN specs to coincide with the MEF’s standards. Currently, CableLabs is focusing on interoperability for Layer 2 VPN after having passed the requirements and specifications stages.

“Certainly MSOs and CableLabs have been working on L2 VPN technology,” said Charles Bergren, an engineer in CableLabs’ Broadband Access Department. “We’ve been working with both MSOs and cable equipment vendors on L2 VPN business Ethernet technology. Given that they’re (cable operators) already rolling this sort of technology across existing cable plants, we’re working to refine the installation and operational guidelines.”

The goal right now at CableLabs is to help MSOs offer L2 VPN and standards-based E-Line services within cable operators’ own footprints before offering E-Line and E-LAN services to multiple user network interfaces.

Cable operators will be able to use DOCSIS to offer business services to small-to-midsized companies in areas such as strip malls, while using fiber to reach the higher-end, enterprise customers such as financial institutions and hospitals.

“Layer 2 VPN over Ethernet; I think that presents a huge opportunity for us in the industry,” said Darren Wolner, Time Warner Cable’s senior product manager. “What it really does is give us the ability to have Ethernet available in more and more places to customers in all different market segments by using the extensiveness of the DOCSIS plant that we already have. Being able to spread Ethernet services across our footprint in ways that make the most sense for us based on any given opportunity, the Layer 2 VPN or Ethernet over DOCSIS story is something we’re pretty excited about.”

Mike Emmendorfer, Arris’ senior director, solution architecture and strategy, said his company is looking at optical E-Line and E-LAN services as well as Ethernet over DOCSIS. “We’re real bullish on coupling DOCSIS 3.0 with MEF services,” Emmendorfer said. “If you look at MEF services along side of DOCSIS 3.0, operators will be able to meet a vast majority of enterprises’ needs. Somewhere in the range of 50 Mbps or less would be a technology that could meet the needs of remote offices, small offices and medium-sized offices.”

Kristine Faulkner, VP of product development and management for Cox Business Services, said that while fiber can better serve the larger enterprise customers, only 14 percent of the commercial buildings in the U.S. have fiber connections. “Where we see a great opportunity for us in hitting the addressable market is with our HFC infrastructure and our HFC network,” Faulkner said. “We can gain a larger footprint with Ethernet by delivering it over our HFC with minimal investment. With the speed performance we can now achieve with our HFC network, and with the capabilities we have Ethernet-wise, it’s a great market for us to look at how we can migrate that frame relay business over to cable.”

RBOCS are faced with cannibalizing their embedded base of private line and frame relay customers as they try to transition over to Carrier Ethernet services. TWC’s Fennell, and Faulkner, said cable won’t have to worry as much about cannibalization. “It all goes back to how we’ve built our network infrastructure and our primary Ethernet strategy,” Fennell said. “We’re able to meet that new bandwidth demand without having to worry about cannibalizing our existing installed base of TDM service.”

What’s next for Ethernet and cable
Wasilewski said MEF has two working groups that are focused on cable. One is the Local Access Services initiative.

“That is looking at what information needs to be passed from one operator to another if I’m going to order a last-mile circuit from you,” said Wasilewski, who is also on MEF’s board. “The output of that group will be used to facilitate business interconnections across cable operators’ footprints, and then ultimately, across the telcos as well.”

RCN’s Alvarez said his company is exploring a partnership that will allow it to go off net with other providers in order to offer a banking institution, for example, service from New York to London or the Pacific Rim.

“As a matter of fact, one of the things that has happened for us after getting MEF 9 and MEF 14 certification is that now we’re talking to a couple of companies to create a partnership that would allow us to drive our footprint from here in the U.S. to Europe and the Pac Rim,” Alvarez said.

The second cable-related MEF group is focused on provisioning assurance and billing. Wasilewski said the activity in that group is fairly early on but its focus will likely be on inter-operator issues.

While Carrier Ethernet services from cable operators are already having an impact in commercial services, the playing field is wide open for more lucrative scores. As a whole, TWC’s Fennell said cable can get behind a unified message for Carrier Ethernet by active participation in the MEF, at conferences and through organizations such as CTAM, SCTE and CableLabs. But at the same time, work needs to continue to make sure the services are ready to scale once the new standards and technologies are in place.

“Does cable need a unified marketing story for Carrier Ethernet? I strongly believe yes, but it might not be today,” Wasilewski said. “I think we have some time as we work on implementing the services and work on the back office systems; we can also start working on a unified marketing message so that when the technology has been implemented with a degree of scale, we can really push a strong message out into the marketplace. But you certainly don’t want to say too much until you’re in the position to satisfy the demand.”