Long-distance carrier begins converting its network to packet switching
Sprint Corp. is betting a billion dollars on packets. The nation's third-largest long-distance carrier last week began converting its circuit-switched telephone network to packet-switched technology akin to that used on the Internet. The company claims the project is the first time a national telecom carrier has set out to totally revamp its systems, converting them from a technology used by most phone companies to carry voice calls for more than 100 years to a technology better suited to carry data.
The upgrade, which Sprint says will cost more than a billion dollars, will begin with new hardware in a Gardner, Kan., switching center near Sprint's headquarters and is expected to take more than a decade before its entire network of 8 million local lines is modernized. By the end of 2003, the company expects to have converted switching centers in Boulder City, Nev.; Independence, Va.; Mill Hall, Pa.; Newport, Pa.; Warren, Ohio; and Zolfa Springs, Fla. Within six years, half the Sprint network should be using packet-switching technology, according to a spokesman.
When completed, the packet-switched network will allow voice or data traffic to be chopped into packets and sent across networks using multiple routes, the same way the Internet handles IP traffic. The resulting system would be much simpler and cheaper for carriers to operate, which is likely why Sprint is pursuing it aggressively, says Meta Group analyst Don Carros. "Everybody's pressured right now to do what they can to increase revenues. One way of doing that is eliminating these vertical stacks of technology that exist on the backbone," Carros says.
Sprint customers won't be forced to change equipment to use the upgraded network, but upgrading to packet-based communications gear would let them gain access to IP-based products and services, including multimedia streams, IP telephony, IP Centrex, and yet-to-be-invented services. Businesses should save money on capacity increases, lower maintenance costs, and combined voice and data traffic on one network. And because packet-switched networks are more reliable and redundant, service quality should improve as well.
Other carriers also are moving to IP-based networks. Verizon began using packet switches in New York City four years ago and expects to switch all its hardware over entirely. "We're going to do it as quickly as possible, but the technology keeps evolving, and we haven't set an end date," a spokesman says. "It's going to be an evolution."
Sprint says it's the only carrier to begin completely replacing its old copper-wire switched networks. Other companies have "put packet into their networks in terms of building overlays," says Mark Chall, VP of network packet switching for Sprint. "But we decided one unified network was the way for us to go. We're trashing the existing switches." Sprint is replacing its old switches with asynchronous transfer mode switches and gateways from Nortel Networks Ltd.
Analysts say the shift from circuit switching to packet-based telephony could be as important for the telecommunications world as the paving of dirt roads was for the automobile industry, because it will result in an all-digital packet network that can easily handle a mix of voice, data, video, and other types of traffic.
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