Speed Trap Ahead for U.S. Telcos

Apple’s (ticker: AAPL) unveiling last week of a new iPad with LTE cements its importance. LTE is branded as a kind of 4G service.

Verizon Communications’ (VZ) wireless unit has been the leading proponent in the U.S., but one day it is expected to be deployed by just about every phone company around the globe.

For consumers, it’s fast, really fast.

LTE’s “theoretical maximum” speed, as nerds put it, is 300 million bits per second. That’s as fast as the fastest WiFi networks in homes and offices.

The telephone companies are happy because LTE not only moves units of phones, but also lets carriers squeeze more bits out of each hertz, the fundamental unit of measurement of wireless spectrum.

“It’s the closest thing we’ve seen to a win-win in telecom,” says Craig Mathias, principal with wireless consultancy Farpoint Group; what benefits the phone company has sometimes come at the expense of what consumers want.

LTE already has deepened the disparity among U.S. carriers.

Verizon and AT&T (T) are far ahead of others. Verizon has the ability to serve 200 million U.S. citizens in various markets across the country with LTE, versus 75 million for AT&T. Sprint-Nextel (S) is just getting started.

“To the extent people realize LTE is a faster download, it will be a competitive advantage,” says Piper Jaffray’s Chris Larsen, as will the breadth of the LTE coverage.

LTE “should help Verizon continue to capture the lion’s share of new smartphone subscribers, and potentially a much higher share of tablet subscribers,” says Davenport & Co.’s Drake Johnstone.

For Verizon and AT&T, the benefits nevertheless are not clear cut.

For one thing, LTE is just at the beginning of the road.

“It’s a big, shiny, empty network at this point,” says Jennifer Fritzsche, who follows Verizon for Wells Fargo.

As that service fills up, it will require increasing capital investments.

A recent report by Cisco Systems (CSCO) said that while LTE and other 4G connections are only 0.2% of all mobile connections, they generate 6% of the traffic.

Moreover, the true payoff only comes if customers are satisfied, not disappointed. And that will depend on how expectations are managed.

Times have changed since the very first iPhone was introduced in 2007, when Apple reportedly demanded that any carrier selling the phone provide unlimited monthly data subscriptions. Both AT&T and Verizon now cap how much you can use.

The problem is that with fancy gadgets such as the new iPad and, presumably, the next iPhone, users will bump up against the reality that faster speeds just let them blow through their contracts quicker.

“Any customer who succumbs to the temptation to download a movie on their iPad via LTE will soon learn the error of their ways,” with a fat phone bill, says Craig Moffett, who follows the phone companies for Bernstein Research.

As a result, Farpoint’s Mathias expects more interest in what’s called “WiFi offloading,” where customers are bumped from LTE onto the nearest WiFi network.

Cisco taking more ‘integrated and holistic’ approach to network security

SAN FRANCISCO – As the network security landscape changes worldwide at an increasingly fast (and dangerous) pace, Cisco argues that we need to take a new approach towards the big trends affecting the IT industry.

Speaking at Cisco Security Media Day on Monday afternoon, Cisco’s new senior vice president of its Security and Government group, Chris Young, offered details about the future of Cisco Security.

Young commenced by citing three “mega-trends” affecting security right now: mobility, the cloud, and sophisticated threats to individuals.

The common thread among all of these is the network, as Young posited that Cisco is in a “unique position” here to meet the needs and endpoints of all three of these topics.

According to Young, the network sources all data, handles all devices, routes all requests, controls all flows, sees all traffic, shapes all streams, and touches all users.

“The network is going to be the only place where we can solve tomorrow’s security problems,” said Young.

One of Cisco’s solutions tackling these issues is Cisco’s SecureX technology, a context-aware, network-centric security framework that debuted last year.

Overall, the core themes behind SecureX are leveraging visibility, context and control across the infrastructure for every customer in the marketplace.

Longer term, Cisco is planning to take an integrated and holistic, network-based approach across Cisco architectures.

“It’s about taking the power of what we’re going to deliver to you,” Young explained, “and bringing that into Cisco’s core architectures,” whether it be directed at products for enterprise customers or service providers.

University dumps Cisco VoIP for open-source Asterisk

“We thought that it will be more cost effective in the long run to go with an open source solution, because of the massive amounts of licensing fees required to keep the Cisco CallManager network up and running,” says Daniel, who this week gave a presentation on his migration project at the VON show in Boston. In the Cisco model, each phone attached to the CallManager required a separate licensing fee to operate, Daniel says. In SHSU’s Asterisk/Cisco model, where it will keep its existing Cisco phones but attach them to Asterisk servers on the back end, the phone licensing costs are eliminated.

SHSU so far has moved 1,600 IP phones from Cisco CallManagers to Asterisk, which runs the IETF-standard version of SIP. The Asterisk functions are spread across six redundant Dell servers: two act as redundant PSTN gateways (and are outfitted with four-port T-1 cards from Digium, which commercially distributes Asterisk); two more servers handle call processing; another set provides voicemail.

The Cisco 7940 and 7960 IP phones the school had deployed were updated with a standard SIP software image replacing the proprietary Cisco Skinny Call Control Protocol (SCCP, or “Skinny”), which was used to connect the phones to the CallManagers. When the IP phones were upgraded with the SIP image about a month ago “all we had to do was reboot the phones,” in order to register them with the Asterisk server, he says.

More control over the IP PBX software and servers was another reason SHSU made the Asterisk jump, Daniel says. “We felt we were more susceptible to hacks,” since only Cisco-approved servers updates and patches could be installed on the Windows Server 2000-based CallManagers, he says. “We have a lot more peace of mind with the open-source system. If a bad exploit is found in SIP, we can fix it ourselves.”

Besides the phones, Cisco gear still comprises a large chunk of the IP telephony infrastructure at SHSU. The entire WAN and LAN is based on Cisco routers and switches. The Catalyst switches already installed support power over Ethernet (for powering IP phones) as well as QoS for voice traffic. All voice traffic on the campus network runs separate from data traffic in its own VLAN segment. Additionally, Cisco VG228 gateway devices, which can connect up to 24 copper/analog phones to an VoIP network, is used in dormitories and other areas where just a basic phone is needed instead of a more costly IP handset, Daniel says.

So far, SHSU has been able to operate the Asterisk/Cisco IP phones at one-third the cost of CallManager/Cisco IP phones, Daniel says. When the digital Nortel handsets are migrated to SIP-based Cisco phones, or analog sets, another large chunk of savings will come just by shutting down the electrical and cooling resources required to keep the old PBX running. “The Meridian takes up an awful lot of power itself. The room it’s in has to be cooled to 60 degrees, and it has to have its own generator,” Daniel says.

While Asterisk and the SIP protocol lack some of the more extensive features on the Cisco CallManager, the university community has handled the transition with few glitches. The only major feature missing in the Asterisk/Cisco phone network is secretarial functions, which allow an administrator to manage and answer phone extensions for multiple end-users. To fix this, Daniel is looking into extensions to the SIP protocol that allow for multiple-line handling, he says.

In another potential issue with open-source VoIP, SHSU loses the technical support from Cisco with its Asterisk migration. But Daniel says he has so far been able to keep up with support issues through mailing lists and the online community that develops and supports Asterisk. Dell provides support on the server hardware, and Digium supports the T-1 cards installed in the boxes.

“We try to have checks and balances,” among the IT staff that supports the Asterisk system, Daniel says. “We try to keep the [the Linux and Asterisk server images] as pristine as possible.” Daniel has also created copious documentation on all the Asterisk configurations and changes he’s made to the software. “Basically if someone were to have to come in and take over my job, they’d have a pretty quick turnaround on learning what needs to be done,” he says.

Cisco NAC appliance secures enterprise networks

More than two years into its Network Admission Control (NAC) infrastructure vision, Cisco Systems Inc. last week announced the addition of a new appliance to its NAC arsenal.
While it’s not completely clear what impact Cisco’s new NAC Appliance 4.0 will have on users, some industry analysts say an appliance-based approach to NAC could serve as a building block for a later framework rollout.

“They can get started with it now,” Yankee Group vice president Zeus Kerravala said of companies that are considering NAC but are still teetering on the fence about deployment. “It can give them a taste of what it’s like, and it lets them see the benefits.”

For an NAC framework approach, users would have to go through a full router and switch upgrade, which is often costly, complex and time consuming. Though Kerravala said a framework approach is a better way to go, NAC alone can’t justify a complete upgrade.

“If someone’s running older routers and switches, NAC isn’t going to be the sole reason for an upgrade,” he said.

Simply put: An NAC framework is not a weekend road trip, it’s a years-long journey and NAC 4.0 would be the gasoline.

Cisco NAC Appliance 4.0 is the latest incarnation of Clean Access. The upgrade provides policy enforcement at enterprise network entry points. Version 4.0 can be deployed in-line or out-of-band with network traffic at Layer 2, and it can be deployed out-of-band at Layer 3 to minimize the number of services required for multiple locations.

Cisco changes take time

Cisco Systems’ rumored job cuts of up to 10,000 globally are expected as the networking giant had warned earlier of impending cost-cutting measures, noted an industry watcher.

In an e-mail interview with ZDNet Asia, Ovum principal analyst Jens Butler said there would “not really” be any surprise if Cisco issues pink slips, as savings and restructuring were “on the cards” as indicated during its third quarter results announcements in May.

“Even though it posted slightly better-than-expected results for its fiscal third quarter ended Apr. 30, [Cisco] also issued lower-than-expected Q4 guidance and said it plans to cut expenses by US$1 billion by the end of the 2012 financial year,” said Butler. “That will include reductions of both the employee and contractor workforce, although the company gave no details on how many people will lose their jobs.”

Reports surfaced last week that the company has plans to axe as many as than 10,000 jobs. A Singapore-based Cisco spokesperson confirmed in an e-mail to ZDNet Asia that the job cuts were in line with the its announcements in May. He added that the company will share more details on the cost reductions, including layoffs, during its earnings call on Aug. 11.

According to Butler, the job cuts are part of Cisco’s overall program which aims to build a company that is “simpler to deal with”, is able to drive faster innovation and with simplified operations.

However, he noted that whether the changes will bring about increased profitability will be evident only after at least several quarters. “Such changes across such a larger and diversified organization are complex and will take time, given the levels and depths of stakeholders that need to be communicated with,” he explained.

While the effects will not be visible in the immediate term, Butler said Cisco is refocusing and emphasizing on its core capabilities. The company is also specifically targeting areas it sees great potential, such as collaboration, data centers and virtualization and video, he added.

In a research note dated Jul. 13, Butler said Cisco’s greater emphasis on its core competencies and cleaner engagement model with the multiple layers of its partner ecosystem shows the company is listening to and adapting to market dynamics “rather than attempting to force the market on its own”. His observations were based on his attendance at the Cisco Live customer and partner event last week in Las Vegas.

Another industry watcher also welcomed Cisco’s strategy change. In a blog post published last Friday, Forrester principal analyst Henry Dewing, who also attended the Cisco Live event, claimed that Cisco CEO John Chambers “has a clear vision of where Cisco needs to go and how to get there”.

Dewing added Cisco “is sounding very much like a mature market leader as it balances risks and rewards in the rapidly changing markets for networking and collaboration”.