Commercial VoIP: Tough, But Doable Some cable operators will just throw up their hands and walk away rather than try to deliver carrier-grade voice services using early generation PacketCable gear designed for residential services. Others, such as Cox Communications, with a history of delivering commercial voice via TDM, push forward with the understanding that nothing comes easy, but it’s worth the effort. That was the message Brian Lough, manager of system development VoIP at Cox delivered during a workshop tutorial "Business Services: Overcoming Deployment Challenges" at SCTE Cable-Tec Expo 2006 in Denver. "Cox," said Lough, understating what everyone in the industry knows, "is a little bit different – or quite a bit different – from other MSOs." While Cox was initially reticent to use VoIP in pursuit of the so-called low hanging fruit of tier 2 and 3 commercial customers, PacketCable, to coin a phrase, changed everything by being cheap enough and flexible enough to let Cox Business Services (CBS) start delivering VoIP. The problem was, Lough said, the initial PacketCable specifications weren’t designed for carrier-grade services, and CBS demanded that its business customers get TDM-grade service. Residential vs. commercial Even targeting small-medium businesses (SMBs) was something of a problem because the specifications were such that the EMTAs (embedded multimedia terminal adapters) only handled two voice lines. That’s great for residential, but it doesn’t work in anything but the smallest business. Cox solved that by stacking six EMTAs and getting 12 lines. "When it comes to elegant, this wasn’t," Lough said. "But it works." So did the HFC plant. "The theory was we could do it over HFC, and that’s exactly what we do," he said. Once the MSO figured it could reliably do commercial VoIP with PacketCable over its networks, it was ready for the obstacles and hurdles that come with presenting the service to customers, Lough said, and this is where the fun really began. "Welcome to the world of voice-over-IP," Lough said, pointing to analog-enabled devices like faxes and credit card scanners, which, in particular, were "really a little fun. They worked pretty bad in some markets." Working with CPE vendors Cox got around the fax problems by working with CPE vendors to improve their products or, in some cases, biting the bullet and replacing the offending CPE with equipment that worked, but credit card scanners "continue to be a problem when they pop up," he said. The biggest thing that BS already knew was to "do a lot of hand-holding," he said. "It’s not like residential." The VoIP guys at Cox encountered a recurring theme when they started working with CBS: Commercial voice is nothing like residential, and PacketCable, in its initial iterations, is a residential specification that "leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to trunking." Obviously, customers "really don’t care" about Cox’s problems connecting to PBXs or faxes or credit card scanners – they only want the new service to run as reliably as the old "or they will leave," said Lough, noting that this led to the "single biggest thing we did to improve our reliability: change (system) management. I really recommend you watch that." Proper system management Properly managing the system by looking into the nooks and crannies and constantly checking for connectivity goes a long way toward overcoming some of the problems still inherent in residential PacketCable technology. There are still holes in the process, though. For instance, Cox had procedures to see large quantities of residential DOCSIS modems going out of service, but "it is a problem right now to really know whether an EMTA is up. There’s really no way to know." Commercial customers sign service level agreements (SLAs), and "it becomes a problem for you to say if they really got service," he said. If an EMTA goes offline, "it’s kind of my word against his" that the service is down. "I think they’re (PacketCable) making progress." Finally, he said, commercial customers want Web features. "Nobody likes star codes," he said, ignoring Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, who, truth be told, probably aren’t Cox subscribers. "Everybody wants Web features." Cable’s advantages While there are hurdles to be overcome, the cable industry has advantages when it comes to delivering commercial VoIP services that make it worthwhile to try, he concluded. "MSOs are more adept at deploying these things quicker, so it may give us a little step up on the LECs," Lough said. "One they get those features, they’re hooked – they’re really sticky features." – Jim Barthold

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