ISPs: QoS not ready for PrimeTime

Participants in the ISP Showdown at Fall Internet World had a clear message for customers: If you want voice over IP, you won't have to wait too long. But if you want security and quality assurances, you better sit tight. Representatives from five of America's's top ISPs went head to head to debate experts, audience members and each other about the services that are and aren't on the horizon.

Participants in the ISP Showdown at Fall Internet World had a clear message for customers: If you want voice over IP, you won't have to wait too long. But if you want security and quality assurances, you better sit tight.

Representatives from five of America's top ISPs went head to head to debate experts, audience members and each other about the services that are and aren't on the horizon.

Alan Taffel, vice president of business and marketing development at UUNET, was the first to get hit with questions about quality of service via customer network monitoring.

"Monitoring software raises serious security issues in the hands of customers," Taffel said. But panelist Denise Pappalardo, senior editor at Network World, asked how customers are supposed to feel comfortable with the service-level agreements they've signed with UUNET.

"We can show them the logs and the source material if they need it," Taffel replied.

In fact, quality of service seemed to be a huge stumbling block for the ISPs. While standards bodies are hard at work developing a set of protocols, including the much-anticipated Differentiated Services (Diff-Serv), to monitor QoS across various ISP backbones, ISPs themselves seem hesitant to jump in just yet.

"The spaceship that is going to deliver [QoS] services hasn't landed yet," Taffel said. "It's difficult to engineer these tiered services. The timeframe [for delivery] depends on third-party vendors."

PSINet CEO Bill Schrader agreed that Diff-Serv and Multi-protocol Label Switching are not yet reliable. PSINet relies on frame relay and ATM in its network for quality of service.

"There is a cultural requirement with [Diff-Serv] that every ISP that I might connect to needs to support it," Schrader said. "Until [Diff-Serv] becomes a standard, that's not going to be possible."

Taffel said 1999 will be the year for advancements in QoS.

That is also when progress is expected in the IP telephony world, according to Kathleen Earley, vice president of Internet services at AT&T. But some ISPs questioned the role of traditional voice vendors in the up-and-coming voice over IP market.

Schrader asked Earley if she thought IP telephony would cannibalise AT&T's voice focus.

Earley said AT&T's voice market is mostly confined to the U.S. whereas IP offers the company a worldwide audience. "We're No. 1 in voice in America. We're No. 1 in voice over IP in Japan, as you know, Bill," she said.

Virtual private networking took its hits, too. While John Curran, chief technology officer at GTE Internetworking, was quick to tout his company's commitment to virtual private networking, he admitted that thus far the company had not announced any VPN products.

Finally, mergers and acquisitions offered a spirited debate between MCI/WorldCom addition UUNET and the ever-independent PSINet. Taffel asked Schrader why he wanted to stay away from the popular world and acquisitions.

"It comes down to focus," Schrader replied. "[Merged ISPs] are not focused."

But Taffel shot back that PSINet is missing out on millions of dollars in capital.

Schrader said he wasn't worried. "We have hundreds of millions of dollars and we can get hundreds of millions of dollars."

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