A pair of strange bedfellows – cable and the Metro Ethernet Forum – have become one of telecommunications’ hottest couples, feeding off a mutual desire to use Ethernet to feed the business community.

"Carrier Ethernet really enables the cable industry to be able to deliver services just as they would … in the residential area in terms of ubiquitous services that business customers are looking for," says Nan Chen, president of the MEF and marketing vice president for MEF member Strix Systems, speaking at a press conference announcing Arris as the MEF’s 100th member.

To find common ground, cable’s revamping its coax networking technology to look more like the MEF’s carrier-based networking, and the MEF is moving its access technology to work with cable’s last-mile coax.

"One of the significant developments recently in the Metro Ethernet Forum is to continue to expand Ethernet in the access space where we enable multiple access methodologies to deliver carrier Ethernet services, including copper, fiber, PON (passive optical networks), wireless and coax," Chen says.

This increases cable’s options for offering commercial services via Ethernet. Understanding Ethernet "MSOs understand the strength of Ethernet," says Ken Fitzpatrick, senior vice president of the Time Warner Cable business class group and a member of the MEF. "Our relationship with the Metro Ethernet Forum … has allowed us to drive new business in new areas and support customers in a standardized way and compete head-to-head (with incumbent telcos) and win business."

The relationship’s hang-up used to be fiber. The MEF likes using fiber to the end user, and cable likes running fiber to a node and then using coax for the majority of its smaller commercial customers. It’s another area of compromise for the disparate players.

"The potential of the sub-10 Mb market is one of the fastest growing areas of Ethernet services," says Kristine Faulkner, vice president of product development and management at Cox Communications. "We intend to serve that with our fiber as well as significantly leverage our coax network."

Touching coax means finagling with DOCSIS. That’s in the works, says Bryant Isaacs, president of new business ventures at Arris.

"There are already draft specifications by CableLabs to working groups – for example Business Services over DOCSIS – that are very close in service attributes to what carrier Ethernet services are," says Isaacs. "The link to MEF will become even stronger as the certification process within CableLabs gets going on the commercial segment."

The MEF is also pushing its standardization model from traditional wide area network (WAN) focus to the cable-centric local area network (LAN), enabling a "new business model for the cable industry with carrier Ethernet," says Bob Metcalfe, Ethernet inventor and advisory director of MEF. "We’re able to bridge the LAN to the WAN, connect the commercial locations, businesses and eventually residences through carrier Ethernet into their global carrier network. We get end-to-end native mode packet service, native mode Ethernet."

The marriage between carrier Ethernet and cable is one that’s designed to last. Besides Cox and Time Warner Cable, Cablevision‘s Optimum Lightpath is an MEF member, and traditional cable vendors are feeling the MSOs’ push toward more standardized carrier technologies.

"We’re asking for a lot of new capabilities from our historic vendor community (as) customers are beginning to distinctly demand and have more advanced demands for Ethernet," says Faulkner.

Those demands cannot be met with nonstandardized products built for each cable operator’s needs, so the MEF is helping set the necessary interoperable specifications. Instilling customer confidence "It really allows us to instill the confidence (in customers) and have the added credibility of this certification," says Fitzpatrick. "Really, a common set of metrics allows us to compare ourselves against other offerings."

End users are the traditional customers cable has coveted. Schools, hospitals and smaller corporate offices all fall within the industry’s HFC blanket that, with new cooperation within the MEF, will now also come under a standardized set of Ethernet equipment.

"The beauty of the Metro Ethernet Forum specifications is that they define services so you can offer exactly the same service across a range of technologies," says Louise Wasilewski, vice president of business development at Narad Networks, a cable vendor member of the MEF. "The majority of services that cable operators are providing today which are compliant with metro Ethernet specifications are over fiber, but there are certainly solutions that are available today to deliver the same class of service over coax."

And that’s why, to echo former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean’s slogan about his state and "you," cable and the MEF are "perfect together."

"Business services do represent a real-world growth engine for MSOs today, and our association with the MEF … will help Arris help MSOs excel in this new and existing marketplace," says Isaacs. – Jim Barthold

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