Telecom has deployed a new digital service which should solve problems created last year by unprecedented - and unfulfilled - demand for ISDN from large ISPs.
PR2 is an analogue signalling protocol which - although it dates back nearly 50 years - operates across a modern standard 2Mbit/s digital bearer. It does not offer the sophisticated D-Channel-based services associated with primary rate ISDN, but does meet the more straightforward needs of ISPs who use digital bearers to provide dial-in capacity.
At present, Telecom is offering it to those ISPs using Ascend Max hubs to manage dial-in capacity - the largest of which are Xtra and The Internet Group (Ihug). It may also be useful when Telecom launches its IPNet service, which will probably see local call centres equipped with Max hubs.
PR2 has already eased a desperate squeeze on digital capacity from Auckland's Mayoral Drive exchange in particular, in contrast to much of last year, where Xtra and Ihug had "booked up" all new ISDN months ahead for use as dial-in capacity.
Just as importantly, it finally allows Telecom to offer single-number hunting - the ability to aggregate hundreds of dial-in lines to a single access number. Limitations on the NEC switches used by Telecom have forced Xtra and Ihug to issue a new access number for every 60 dial-in lines they have added.
"I'm really happy to get single-number hunting, and it's ironic that we'll pick it up almost a year to the day since we first asked Telecom for a fix," says Ihug director Tim Wood, who says his company will take up a PR2 service next month. Ihug complained publicly last year when successive attempts to fix the problem, to do with series completion on Telecom's NEC switches, failed.
Graham Rowe, marketing manager of Telecom's computer communications unit, says the single-number hunting is "a capability which was inherent in the switches which up till now we hadn't been able to use. That will create some distinct benefits to larger ISPs."
Rowe declined to discuss individual customers, but says Telecom began operating PR2 in November, after tests with Ascend vendor Asnet in the preceding month, and is now offering it from several exchanges.
Xtra also declined to comment, but it seems reasonable to assume that Xtra is already using PR2.
"When we did the forecasting two years ago for ISDN primary rate, the ISPs weren't in that equation, and now they are, and that has created some challenges in terms of meeting their requirements. This is an alternative that we can perhaps be a bit more proactive with," says Rowe.
"It's a standard NEC telephony product - but it's something we haven't use in the past. The capability has been sitting in there and we've decided to enable it for ISPs using Ascend Max 4000 equipment."
Although PR2 is seen in some quarters as an opportunity for Telecom to free up much of the ISDN capacity currently claimed by ISPs, Rowe says migration will be up to customers.
"It will come down to the individual ISPs and their requirements and what their network's going to look like and so on. There's no push to get people off ISDN or anything - if an ISP has a particular requirement, PR2 may be the best way to meet it."
ISPs will not make their decisions on price - PR2 service will be priced the same as existing digital capacity.
Wood says if PR2 performs as billed Ihug will "hand back" most of its existing primary-rate ISDN so it can be redeployed by Telecom, "subject to confirmation that PR2 will support the 56K modem protocols - that's the only issue for us at the moment."
The 56Kbit/s modem protocol announced by Rockwell tolerates only one analogueue step in a connection between the user and an ISP and Asnet spokesman Steve Harrington says he is unsure whether PR2's analogueue signalling is an issue. "That's a very good question. The NEC switches have allowed us to do a few things we thought we couldn't do - such as putting ISDN calls over PR2 - but we're going to have to try 56K."
Wood says that along with the benefits of PR2, Ihug will get another service it has been asking for for months.
"We'll also finally have a Telecom fibre spur direct from the street which will allow us to dispense with the microwave links we've been using. Our roof is covered with antennae at the moment."