The December column is one of my favorites because it’s an opportunity for an annual wrapup and a chance to reflect on cable telephony progress and direction. This year’s wrapup is particularly satisfying because, in 2004, we got back our focus on telephony. Commitment At the National Cable Show in May, the chief decision makers in four of the largest MSOs made public commitment to telephony, complete with near-term timetables. The industry has begun delivery on the promise, and at the end of the third quarter, residential telephony offerings were available from more than 20 operators, and about half of the operators were delivering telephony via voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) in at least one operating region. However, constant bit rate (CBR) telephony isn’t dead. For example, it’s no secret that Comcast’s telephony offerings currently are driven by CBR. That doesn’t mean VoIP is out of the picture. In addition to vendor offerings that provide for IP access architectures using a digital time division multiplexing (TDM) switch for call processing, we have products such as the Safari C3 from Cedar Point Communications that give a migration path from CBR to IP in a one-box solution. Speaking of Cedar Point and one-box solutions, it is worth noting that Cedar Point’s approach gained a lot of respectability in December when Comcast selected them as a primary partner for voice switching. Despite the attractiveness of multiple vendor "mix and match," systems integration is a challenge, which includes coordination of not only vendors but also software point issues. One point of contact for element management and operations certainly simplifies operations and maintenance. On the other hand, one point of contact doesn’t necessarily mean one box. Tekelec, for example, aggressively sought and achieved acquisitions in 2004 that bring a full IP solution under one corporate umbrella. While Tekelec has not gone through the PacketCable certification process, Steve Brock, Tekelec senior network engineer, told me at the VoIP Symposium that his company believes that at least part of its solution is PacketCable compliant and is investigating certification as it seeks cable customers. Other companies, such as Syndeo, are positioning themselves as primary point of contact in solutions involving themselves and other partners who have gone through CableLabs interop testing. While we’re talking about PacketCable, we need to remember that the alternative session initiation protocol (SIP) standard (perhaps supplemental is a better word) began making inroads in 2004, not only in the adapter boxes that provide "broadband VoIP" as a data service, but also as a multimedia access method. SIP always was in the PacketCable specs, but primarily as a trunk signaling method. In 2004, it gained enough momentum in the small office home office (SOHO) and small business markets to start the rethinking process at CableLabs. Nortel Networks was one of the first to advertise SIP server capability in addition to PacketCable call server functionality by interfacing its Multimedia Communications Server 5200 with the Communications Server 2000 platform. Things yet to be done Still outstanding for VoIP is the issue of the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) and, to some extent, E911 services. E911 is very much a part of carrier class service. A Colorado lawsuit in 2004 demonstrated that operators offering nonprimary line telephony without E911 run the risk of legal action when the consumers "forget" that their service agreement does not include this capability. CALEA falls into the gray areas created by debate over VoIP’s regulatory status. Regulated telephony services are subject to legal wiretapping by law enforcement agencies. Although VoIP still is categorized by most governmental authorities as a nonregulated information service, it is likely that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and others will continue pressure to have the same access to VoIP calls that they have for circuit-switched telephony. Achieving complete parity is a challenge because of the differences in call processing. Cemal Dikmen, general manager of lawful intercept products for SS8, pointed out to me that providing CALEA for circuit-switched technology is relatively easy because all call information and content goes through the digital switch. VoIP, on the other hand, decentralizes call processing in separate network elements. "VoIP requires a separate network element to manage the delivery function," notes Dikmen. Although PacketCable issued new specification PKT-SP-ESP-I04-040723 in 2004, software for the delivery function and six FBI "punchlist" items must still be interop tested and release coordinated with other PacketCable network elements. Although Dikmen indicated that SS8’s Xcipio release 3.5.0 has been tested with both Syndeo and Cisco, operators still need to manage ongoing point issue compatibility between these and other vendors. Under the category of 2004 open items comes a benefit from the 2004 VoIP Symposium. After the symposium, Siemens generously posted its spreadsheet analysis of more than 75 capital expense (capex) and operational expense (opex) variables affecting VoIP profitability on the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers Web site for public use. The URL is http://info.scte.org/documentstorage/papers/general/VoIP_Cable_Model.xls. Build it because we can? Finally, I’d like to take the last few paragraphs to talk about future technology direction. We have shown in less than 10 years that cable engineers are among the most creative in the communications industry. Not only have we brought the industry from one-way passive transport to interactive communications, but we also have created an environment for completely new modes of social interaction. To my thinking, responsibility goes hand in hand with that creativity. To put this into perspective, I recommend renting the 1970 movie "The President’s Analyst." This otherwise inane spy spoof has an ending that was almost prophetic for our industry. It turns out that the villain who is trying to control the world is TPC—"The Phone Company." The climax of the movie has the hero in a large network operations center (NOC) in front of the head of TPC. This executive officer tells him that the answer to rising operations costs in TPC is to embed a chip in every human being, so everyone can be in constant communication with everyone else, and it will no longer be necessary to maintain millions of pieces of premises equipment. Remember, this was 1970—bulky, expensive mobile phones were only for cars and were limited to a few per metropolitan area. Radio frequency identity (RFID), the tagging of merchandise with a minitransmitter, was not even a thought. Above all, the norm of the day was individualism and independent action. The absurdity of the movie made it hilarious. But look at what’s happened. Today’s typical teen wouldn’t survive without a cell phone virtually attached to the ear, not to mention the legion of executives who live and die by Blackberry. I leave any judgment of the value of this change of perspective to each of you, but my point is that in a short 30 years, technology created by communications engineers actually changed from preposterous to possible. Today, with IP multimedia, each of our creations has far-reaching implications. It may well be in our best interest to think about where they might send us and include some "path engineering" in design. Rest assured, this is not an endorsement for technophobia. Broadband, IP and mobility have given us tremendous resources for decision-making, distance learning and telemedicine, just to name a few. Technology is neutral, but technologists and their marketing partners contribute values and direction that will not only influence, but also impact, society in relatively short periods of time. "Build it because we can" may not always be the best choice, and as human beings as well as engineers, we need to test our technical solutions against our ethical and moral frameworks. Justin Junkus is president of KnowledgeLink, an independent consulting firm. To discuss this topic further, you may email him at [email protected]. Did this article help you? Email comments to [email protected].