At least, that's the image that some broadband providers want to broadcast: good old Ethernet, stretching all the way from the desktop to the horizon on an elegant strand of glass.
"Plug it in and you can use it," says John Pappas, director of technical marketing at Enterasys Networks, an equipment vendor.
"Compared to SONET [Synchronous Optical Network], which is fairly arcane, Ethernet is relatively inexpensive," says Scott Berry, director of product development and marketing at Metromedia Fiber Network. "Internal people can support and understand it."
With standards for 10-gigabit-per-second data transmission on the drawing board and providers such as MFN and XO Communications burying hundreds of fibre strands under city streets, end-to-end Ethernet is a realistic option for many users.
"It's coming down to cost," says Tim Weis, senior consultant at TeleChoice. "You can get 100 meg[abits per second] for a grand" from providers such as Cogent Communications, buy gigabit-per-second-speed bandwidth from XO for US$14 per megabit per month or pay $1,200 per month for a T1 (1.5-megabit-per-second) line from an independent local exchange carrier.
To many network managers, ethernet is good because it's, well, ethernet: standard, familiar, inexpensive and simple to manage.
The more protocols must be taken into account, the more complicated it is to turn broadband up and keep it running. Token Ring is on its way out for workgroups and the enterprise. Asynchronous Transfer Mode and frame relay connections to the Internet turned out to be an expensive pain in the neck for many information technology departments to configure and manage. "But everyone understands Ethernet," Pappas says.
If the workgroup or enterprise runs on Ethernet, the Gigabit local loop, an intracity network or even a trans-Atlantic fiber link looks like just an extension of one big local area network [LAN], using the same management tools.
"I honestly believe the technology speaks for itself," says John Mullan, director of private data networking at XO. With Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), "they promise you a meg[abit per second], but you have to be living inside the central office in order to get it. We're technology ecumenical - we believe in everything. We essentially can provision bandwidth from one customer premises all the way to the other."
Gigabit ethernet carriers have their favorite vertical markets: education, financial services, government and medicine. "They just eat data for transaction processing and also storage," Berry says in reference to MFN's early financier customers." In order to store, you gotta get the data there," so anybody who needs network-attached storage is a potential customer. Such customers include pharmaceutical companies doing gene sequencing over the Internet, educators offering distance learning, content providers sending a hundred choices of streaming media and manufacturing companies reaching up and down the supply chain.
"Fundamentally, people are needing more and more bandwidth. Our business model is: Don't pay by the bit. Take fibre in. Pay by the month. Pump all you want," Berry says.
For companies with multiple offices across a city or region, a virtual LAN can be the most effective way to go, according to TeleChoice's Weis. "It's always easier to extend the tools we have for monitoring and management."
Weis likes the notion of a virtual LAN because it has the potential to provide true bandwidth-on-demand. When a staff accountant needs to upload biweekly payroll data to his or her service provider, or a Webcast is scheduled to be broadcast to desktops in six locations, broadband capacity can be turned up "like a faucet," then dialed back down.
Weis' vision of an electronic upgrade - where users can choose their bandwidth via a Web portal interface and have it happen instantly and remotely, without technicians laying a finger on the equipment - is already starting to emerge. Telseon's customers can self-provision bandwidth over the Web. Yipes Communications has its electronic self-provisioning system in beta testing, and expects to begin offering it to customers in the first half of this year.
For users, ethernet can be the easy choice because it's familiar technology; there's no leap of faith involved. But the field is crowded with competitors - pure plays, bundled providers, data specialists - touting their Gigabit Ethernet solutions.
Companies such as MFN are building local fiber rings, connecting multitenant buildings and offering colocation services. Some pure plays claim that they partner with other pure plays to create a suite of best-of-breed services for the customer.
XO boasts that it has the operational assets to support "the entire order-to-build process," Mullan says. Its portfolio of Class B wireless spectrum enables XO reach beyond the metro fiber loop with fixed wireless for customers whose buildings are out of the central business districts.
"Because this is a LAN, your first question ought to be security," Weis says. Can the provider assure data security, network reliability and the kind of monitoring and reporting that ensures the customer gets what he or she is paying for?
A dedicated fibre line such as that provided by Cogent, MFN or XO means security as well as availability, MFN's Berry says. "You're not putting your data in line with anybody else's. That's certainly a comfort to a lot of our customers."
For providers, the challenge remains "breaking through the noise with a message that customers understand," says Michael Van Vleck, vice president of marketing at Cogent. Scepticism is considered a good sign: If prospective customers react complacently to Cogent's offer of "a massive amount of bandwidth at a very, very reasonable price," they obviously need more educating about the market's realities. If the prospect raises an eyebrow, he or she gets it.
Large companies, for the most part, have started to understand that fibre is a strategic asset, rather than an expensive albatross around their necks, Berry says. But old ways of thinking die hard. "It does take some education," he admits. "We'll spend half an hour telling the customer all about our business model, and at the end of the conversation they say, 'That's great, but how much do you charge for a DS-3 [45 Mbps]?' "
Probably not. in fact, enterasys' pappas says, one of the "beauties" of an end-to-end Ethernet solution is its ability to scale up, down or sideways to meet current and future user demand, as well as network capacity.
"It's just a card change and a new interface" to move from 100baseT to Gigabit Ethernet on XO's network, Mullan says. "We're talking a matter of days."
Earlier this month, Enterasys, formerly Cabletron Systems, introduced its X-Pedition core backbone routing platform, which has 16 slots and supports up to 128 Gigabit Ethernet ports, or as many as 460 10/100 Ethernet ports. For companies whose appetite for bandwidth outstrips available space in the data center or wiring closet, switches with higher port densities enable more bandwidth to flow to users through one chassis.
Enterasys attached the new X-Pedition switch router to the SmartSwitch Router line to provide a smooth migration path while using the same firmware and interface. The X-Pedition is designed to scale up to future technologies, including 10-Gigabit Ethernet, packet-over-SONET, or down to existing 10/100 Ethernet networks.
Network managers can switch out one blade in a modular router, such as Enterasys' Matrix, to add Gigabit Ethernet for the first set of bandwidth-hungry users - without running a big pipe to every user on the network. "You don't have to do a lot of major work," Pappas says.
What about cabling? Typically, Gigabit Ethernet is run over fiber cable, although Gigabit Ethernet-over-copper can be made to work as long as the data doesn't have to travel huge distances. But many Fortune 1,000 users already have fiber on their premises or are in the process of upgrading.
Beyond the premises, the sky appears to be the limit. To leverage the most expensive part of building an urban fiber network - putting a shovel into the ground - MFN is installing 846-strand cables, Berry says.
Last year, DSL providers crammed the airwaves with promises of low-cost, high-availability bandwidth. As some of the same providers cut staff, file for Chapter 11 or disappear, network managers are entitled to be sceptical about this year's crop of promises.
Being a consumer of telecommunications services "is a difficult position to be in these days," Cogent's Van Vleck says. "You need to be familiar with the needs and benefits [of the service], and that requires the ability to foresee how your company will need to compete, the kinds of applications and services you need to be competitive."
Consolidation and acquisition will continue, but the risk of disruption to a customer's business should be minimal - if that customer chooses the right technology. The broadband networking companies that will survive may be the ones that provide an effective on-ramp to someone else's network, Weis predicts. "Don't be surprised if the name on the bill changes in 12 to 18 months," he says.
In some ways, the roller-coaster financial ride of the last 12 months has promoted innovation among providers, equipment vendors and their customers.
"There was money last year for people to go out and try these things," Weis says. This year, with money tight, documented cost savings and efficiency gains from last year's trials make a compelling case for an end-to-end Ethernet upgrade.