DSL Deployments Hit the Throttle

The major local-exchange carriers are acceleratingdigital-subscriber-line facilities deployments well beyond their current marketingcapabilities in hopes that by next year, they'll be in a position to addresspotentially explosive demand more efficiently than they can today.

A tabulation of the latest round of increased deploymentcommitments shows that the regional Bell operating companies and GTE Corp. combined planto have more than 40 million lines qualified as ready to deliver high-speed-data servicesfrom installed DSL-access multiplexers (DSLAMs) by year's end (see chart). This ismore than twice the number of lines that were accounted for in announced plans at thestart of the year.

"With competitive local-exchange carriers andcable-modem operators making strides in broadband-access markets, the ILECs [incumbentLECs] couldn't afford to wait any longer to make their move," The StrategisGroup consultant Adrianne Brandt said.

"A lot of ILECs are deploying DSLAMs in COs [centraloffices] on a large scale before moving to market the services aggressively because theydon't want to be in a position of telling the customer service isn't availableonce they begin marketing," Brandt added.

By the second quarter of next year, self-installingcapabilities, together with the scale of deployments, will make it easier for ILECs toproceed with more aggressive marketing efforts, Brandt said.

There has already been a significant increase in marketingefforts, she added, buttressed in part by the fact that more advanced means of qualifyinglocal loop are now available and in part by self-installation capabilities introduced intovendor modems over the past four months.

Many suppliers have introduced USB (universal serial bus)modems that users can plug into their computers as they would any other modem."We've seen a tremendous improvement in the percentage ofself-installations," Brandt said, noting that at U S West, that figure is now atabout 92 percent.

Strategis estimated that DSL-modem shipments in NorthAmerica will hit 400,000 by year's end, representing a 900 percent gain over the60,000 shipments registered by the firm at the start of the year. In contrast, the cableindustry anticipates that it will have more than 1 million users connected via cablemodems by year's end.

Some firms tracking high-speed-data deployments see cablemaintaining a strong lead for some time, although they have raised their estimations ofwhere DSL will be as the telcos have moved to deploy DSLAMs more aggressively this year.

Forrester Research Inc., for example, said the number ofDSL users will hit 1.8 million in 2001, compared with 9.2 million cable users, with cablemaintaining the lead through 2003 at 19.65 million versus 7.7 million.

But other observers suggested that projections based oncurrent telephone-industry marketing efforts miss the potential for rapid penetrationacross a 40 million-line base of installed DSLAMs.

Retail stores are already part of the DSL-distributionchain, Brandt said, since many suppliers are offering modems that can be directly pluggedinto computers that conform to local DSL systems supported by ILECs.

The current approach to marketing and connectivity -- whereearly adopters comprise the overwhelming majority of customers -- is no measure of whatthe approach will look like a year from now, when self-installing technology will bewidely available, she added.

An important factor in the ability of the telephoneindustry to aggressively market DSL services in the year ahead is the emergence of a newgeneration of DSLAMs that allow telcos to reach customers served by digital-loop carriers,TeleChoice Inc. DSL analyst Claudia Bacco said.

For example, she noted, the new Lucent Technologies DSLAM"sets a new bar for DSLAM performance by doing everything a DSLAM should do in asingle, compact box."

Bacco added, "The problem for Lucent is that othervendors that already have significant market share are producing a new generation ofsystems that accomplish many of the same things."

For example, DSL-system supplier Copper Mountain NetworksInc. -- which Dataquest Inc. said is the leader in DSLAM deployments for business use --is introducing line cards designed to support the G.Lite DSL standard, employingG.Lite-specific chip sets supplied by Centillium Communications Inc.

"We're able to support 24 ports per line cardusing these chip sets, versus the four to eight ports that you can do on line cards thatare designed for rate-adaptive ADSL [asymmetric DSL]," Copper Mountain director ofproduct marketing Richard Sekar said.

Copper Mountain -- which, by year's end, will beginshipping G.Lite line cards that can be inserted into its currently installed DSLAMs -- hasworked out an interoperability agreement with 3Com Corp. ensuring that all of 3Com'sG.Lite customer modems will work with Copper Mountain DSLAMs.

Even though G.Lite is now a standard, interoperability isnot guaranteed between DSLAMs of one vendor and customer-premises equipment of another,due to the absence of standards for the applications interfaces below the physicaltransport layer, Sekar noted.

This is a key area of concern for the telephone industry,and it is being addressed in standards efforts and through interoperability testingsimilar to what Copper Mountain and 3Com are engaged in, Brandt noted.

Telcos are finding that if different vendors'equipment is used at the ends of the G.Lite connection, the specified transmissiondistance of 18,000 feet for a 1.5 megabit-per-second data rate is often not attainable,she said, adding, "The effective transmission distance is more like 12,000feet."

While some telcos like BellSouth Corp. and SprintCommunications Co. have voiced intentions to push G.Lite aggressively starting in early2000, others are holding back while these problems are resolved.

Many companies are supplying microfilters that customerscan easily attach to their premises lines to support delivery of the non-G.Lite DSLsignals over those lines, which allows self-installation without requiring that the telcooffer G.Lite, Brandt noted.

"The technology exists to solve the G.Lite problems,and there's a tremendous amount of focus by these big companies on doing that,"she said. "I don't believe you can underestimate the power of the ILECs oncethey've set their minds on accomplishing something."