At a time when bandwidth is plentiful but reliable service is hard to find, it's natural that both users and startup carriers would think of physical-layer sharing and bandwidth swapping as a means of making use of untapped pipeline potential. Since the wireless industry never had to contend with its frequency bands' being direct sources of corruption (though some 3G auction managers might quibble with that statement), the "stitch it together" movement has arrived first in wireless. This is embodied in the activities of wireless LAN "hot spot" providers that are still striving to stay in business long enough to realize profitable returns.
The wireline players, particularly in optical backbones at both metro and long-haul levels, face another issue entirely. The mere mention of peering, fiber service swapping and even the fairly neutral service-level agreement (SLA) deals now brings to mind the specter of the Securities and Exchange Commission. As Peter Feldman, chief technology officer of Telx Communications (New York), pointed out in a recent peering session at the Integrated Broadband Networks Summit, the entire history of bandwidth trading is limited to about 3,000 exchanges, of which 2,000 were carried out by a little company called Enron. Players like Telx have to show the world that peering points and capacity swaps not only make sense in a cost-conscious world but also may be necessary to make better use of fiber assets in the ground.
Telx deals with many incumbent carriers from Europe, Asia and the United States, all of which stay current with the latest Sonet aggregation and DWDM equipment. That being said, it remains puzzling that most carriers opt for very fine granularity in peering, specifically DS-1 and DS-3 circuit equivalents.
Serial entrepreneur Alex Mashinsky was on the same panel and gave a sense as to where peering and bandwidth swaps will go. Mashinsky's latest bid was to pick up the assets of Cinta Networks' software group in Beaverton, Ore., and meld it with his own startup, Qoptics Inc. Its mission, Mashinsky said, is to automate the creation of ad-hoc bandwidth-sharing contracts in order to meet short-term quality-of-service limits without having to add more semi-permanent bandwidth.
This is not about two carriers that swap phony fiber assets to put something ethereal on the balance sheets. It's about carriers' automating short-term capacity contracts by creating a dedicated server and storage network on the signaling control plane that acts as a real-time bartering agent for carriers.
In a year when cost reductions rule, software and equipment that allow real-time bandwidth bartering may be one of the few bright spots for network engineering. And creation of real-time agents that allocate capacity pools and set up SLAs could help remove the taint of Enron from the field of bandwidth bartering.
We'll be hearing a lot more about sharing and peering in coming months, over and above the fiber-swap investigations carried out by the SEC.
Loring Wirbel is editorial director of Communication Systems Design and the editorial director for CMP Media's Communications Initiative. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.