Cox Business Services‘ fourth place finish in Vertical Systems Group‘s mid-year assessment of the business Ethernet market is good news for the MSO and further evidence of the industry’s coming of age as a key player in the expanding world of Ethernet services.

According to Vertical, Cox Business, with 8.9 percent of ports, trails only AT&T (19.5 percent), Verizon Business (15.8 percent) and Time Warner Telecom (13.7 percent). Cogent, with 8.6 percent, rounds out the top five.

"The industry is continuing to rally around the view that this is a great area for growth," said Kristine Faulkner, vice president of product development and management for Cox Business Services. "If you look at any of the statistics, they show that frame relay, private line and other options are beginning to be replaced, and Ethernet is that replacement."

The arrival of Cox in the top five is only part of the story. Erin Dunne, Vertical’s director of research, paints a picture of an expanding Ethernet industry and sees cable as a key player in that growth.

The lion’s share of Ethernet sales to this point, she said, were in the metropolitan area. Those sales will continue, but will be buttressed by significant growth in wide-area network (WAN) traffic. "Moving forward, the sharp incline … will be on the WAN side," Dunne said.

Cable is well-positioned in both the local and wide area sectors, she said. Indeed, while Cox was the first to crack the highest echelon in the firm’s scorebook, Bright House Networks, Charter Business, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Optimum Lightpath are in the next tier. Cable is growing at a faster pace than the overall rate of growth of the Ethernet business sector. "(Cable’s) collective slice of the pie is bigger and will continue to get bigger," she said.

Dunne said that relatively easy gains in metro market share will continue as operators bring regions online and sales spike due to easy early sales. This staggered approach is unlike the telephone industry approach, in which services are introduced more or less at the same time across the entire footprint. "Companies such as Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Charter have similar business development plans, which try to get a unified product across all of its regions," Dunne said. "Cox just came out faster."

The ascendancy of cable in the Ethernet sector is not a slam dunk, however. Dispersed enterprises are more demanding and more likely to require connectivity in areas not served by the MSO making the pitch. Put more simply, selling Ethernet to a midsize regional medical center is different than pitching a Fortune 500 company. Termination, trading and coax Cable operators face three main challenges to sustaining and accelerating that growth.

One challenge for MSOs is to learn to automatically complete last mile connections on each other’s networks. Louise Wasilewski (related story), the marketing co-chair of the Metro Ethernet Forum and the vice president of business development at PhyFlex Networks, said that cable operators and the MEF aim to produce the first specs aimed at this issue by year’s end.

A second challenge is to maintain quality of service and class of service (QoS and CoS) when trading long-haul traffic. This can be done manually today, but automation is seen as a key going forward. The MEF is working on these issues in the External Node-to-Node Interface (E-NNI) initiative, Wasilewski said.

Finally, operators must create a family of specifications to optimize Ethernet over coax in the last mile/first mile. Faulkner said that Cox is giving the issue a lot of attention. This makes sense, of course, since coax is the industry’s main method of connectivity. Wasilewski points out that DOCSIS doesn’t offer the same capacity as fiber, but is sufficient for smaller branch offices. "They will be looking for 10 Megs or less, and cable should be well-positioned," she said.

The sense is that Cox has done a good job, but is ahead simply because it started earlier. "I think Cox’s showing in the Vertical Systems study is a good representation of how cable is moving ahead with these services," Wasilewski said. "Other operators are doing things more quietly to prepare to get in the Ethernet market in a big way. Cox already has done so." – Carl Weinschenk

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