SwitchPoint's Ethernet Pitch:An MSO Last-Mile Solution

SwitchPoint Networks Inc. is pitching the concept of an Ethernet-based local area network to a wide array of service providers, emphasizing a 100-megabit, last-mile scenario tailor-made for advanced-data applications.

Rather than a slower digital subscriber line or Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification-based modem, SwitchPoint employs a combination of optical fiber and category-6 cable to provide homes and small businesses with 100-megabit download and upload speeds.

To date, the company has focused on international business, said president and CEO William Beans Jr. Many governments — particularly in Japan, Australia, Kuwait and Azerbaijian — are pushing for new-build broadband plant.

SwitchPoint has landed one U.S. contract, with cable overbuilder WideOpenWest LLC in Lakewood, Colo. Other MSOs, long committed to DOCSIS, have been slow to embrace Ethernet over the last mile.

"It's a great platform for somebody who wants to go and compete," he said.

Beans is no stranger to cable. He spent much of the 1990s building MSO-backed Teleport Communications Group Inc. into a strong competitive local-exchange carrier. He also worked at facilities-based competitive communications provider ICG Communications Inc., and is still on that company's board.

"Cable doesn't want to build new plant," though operators are forced to do periodic rebuilds anyway, he said. Beans called Ethernet "the first mile in any medium."

But SwitchPoint produces a variety of products — including technology that operators can lay alongside existing hybrid fiber-coaxial cable plant to beef up last-mile performance.

WOW fits somewhat into that mode. The overbuilder's plant consists of two strands of fiber — one for video and a second for Ethernet service — which link to a Harmonic Inc. node, said WOW chief technical officer Mike Brody.

The Harmonic node — which handles the MPEG-2 cable "video" stream — also houses a SwitchPoint fiber node. Category 6 cable runs some 300 to 400 feet from the SwitchPoint fiber node to a pole. There, one of SwitchPoint's eight-port digital switch-data networks (DSDN) switches is installed. Category 6 cable then runs the rest of the distance to the home — typically 300 feet or less — said Brody. WOW uses a power-passing tap at the pole to power the Ethernet side of the plant.

Brody said 1,449 of WOW's 2,163 subscribers take the Ethernet data service. A full video, voice and 3 megabit data package sells for $124.95 a month.

A package of just video and 3 megabits of data costs $79.95 a month. WOW also offers 256-kilobit and 10-megabit data service, Brody said.

In the Midwest — where WOW serves 310,000 subscribers acquired from Ameritech Corp. — the company will roll out cable modems and digital set-tops on the existing HFC plant.

Last-mile Ethernet's major benefit is its ability to provide the robustness of fiber-to-the-home without the cost, Beans said. While FTTH deployments can run $3,000 per home, SwitchPoint's DSDN costs between $500 and $600 per home passed, Beans said.

SwitchPoint's 3300 series product is a data-overlay scheme that can provide on-demand video, voice and date at speeds as fast as 100 megabits. It's made for existing HFC networks, apartment buildings and small to midsized businesses, SwitchPoint said.

The 3500 series fiber-switch product line adds full broadcast TV functionality and a maximum backbone speed of 1 gigabit.

Bean said the DSDN switch typically costs $1,200, and each port costs $200. "The 3500 will be the measuring stick for new builds," he said.

Although the technology can handle video and voice traffic, "internationally, high-speed-data is clearly the lead," said Beans. Offshoot applications for ISPs could include videoconferencing and high-speed gaming, he said.

SwitchPoint actually originated in the gaming realm. In the late 1990s, the company's founder built a high-speed local area network to play games with his buddies, said Beans.

After the Ethernet technology was "hardened" to withstand the force of outside weather conditions, SwitchPoint was formed in 1999. Since then, the company has raised $37 million in two initial rounds of funding.

Although SwitchPoint's early success has come in newly built systems, Beans sees applications in existing cable systems. Not too long ago, he noted, dense wave division multiplexing, gigabit Ethernet and Internet-protocol telephony were not thought of as cable technologies. That has changed.

Cable operators may find a use for SwitchPoint's local Ethernet gear, even though they've rolled out DOCSIS, he said. MSOs could hang some of SwitchPoint's products from existing plant to serve small- and medium- sized business, noted Beans.

"They are more willing to listen," Beans said of MSOs, but "there is a sensitivity to how they spend capital."