While the telecommunications industry continues to work on the definition of a soft-switch to provide voice services over a data network, competitive local exchange carriers are pioneering the use of the technology in their commercial networks as part of their next-generation services architecture.
Most of these pioneers are smaller companies. For example, Ntegrity is using a CopperCom softswitch to build a network that offers voice and data services to multidwelling units.
At the other end of the spectrum stands CTC Communications, a rapidly growing East Coast competitor that will begin trying out softswitch architecture from Telcordia in the first quarter of 2001.
For CTC, the move is a natural one, says Alan Russell, director of corporate communications at CTC. The company already bundles local and long-distance data and voice service, which it carries over its regional Asynchronous Transfer Mode network in the former Bell Atlantic region.
Currently, the company resells the incumbent's service for its local phone service. By introducing softswitch technology into its network, CTC will only lease T1 (1.5-megabit-per-second) loops from the incumbents, providing the intelligence for basic and enhanced voice services on its own.
"Our customers have been getting services as a package, with everything appearing on one bill, and that won't change," Russell says. "We had positioned ourselves as a leader in developing converged network services. We are now positioning as a leader in local services - using packet architecture."
Softswitches are standard open servers equipped with software that replicates the voice services usually found on a circuit switch, such as a DMS-100 from Nortel Networks or a 5ESS from Lucent Technologies. By moving voice features onto open server platforms, softswitches enable companies to offer the same kinds of services - such as call forwarding, caller ID and call waiting - over Internet Protocol that are offered on the standard phone network today.
The chief advantage to CTC of the softswitch is cost. A circuit switch typically costs $5 million in a relatively small size of 24,000 lines, says Andrew Cray, analyst at the Aberdeen Group.
According to Russell, the softswitch approach runs only about 20 percent of the circuit-switch costs, calculating only the physical costs of setting up voice ports.
There are even greater operational savings. "One of the big savings here is that we are managing one network for all applications," Russell says.
The customers' traffic is converged at their premises and travels over leased T1 or multiple lines into CTC's network. There, traffic is switched to data network, Internet or voice gateways, depending on the application.
CTC is working with prebeta test customers and lining up customers for the field trial in the first quarter of 2001. It has already used the Telcordia CallAgent to switch voice calls among 11 of its branch offices.
Russell believes that what separates CTC's softswitch deployment efforts from those of integrated communications providers that are building networks from scratch is that CTC already had 361,000 access lines in service by June, and is adding an average of 45,000 per quarter.
CTC picked Cisco Systems and Telcordia to work with on building an integrated data, video and voice network that spans the local and long-distance realm because of their experience.
"The big thing is - what is the future?" Russell says. "It is obvious that the future is data, and IP-centric. You need to be striving and driving your business to those technologies. To us, it would be a bad investment in saying 'Let's invest in circuit technology.' We're not in that situation. We are bringing next-generation services to the marketplace and we are doing it on a next-generation network."