Bill Smith Bellsouth

Bill Smith Bellsouth

Byline: Vince Vittore

If there is such a thing as divine redemption in the corporate world, BellSouth’s Bill Smith is living it. Derided throughout the telecom industry’s boom as the one big-league incumbent telco that would be left standing at the altar while others merged, BellSouth now finds itself in the enviable position of serving a still-growing local market base with the ability to provide long-distance service everywhere.

More important to Smith, chief product development and technology officer for BellSouth, is the company’s network. Once considered to be shackled by its extensive use of digital loop carriers (DLCs), it has become one of the more advanced and fiber-rich networks in the U.S. because of the need to push fiber to those remote terminals. What’s more, BellSouth is sitting on the a trove of broadband wireless spectrum.

The BellSouth that’s emerging from the telecom meltdown isn’t radically different from the BellSouth of 1999 that was struggling to extend DSL services beyond those remote terminals. It’s just a matter of time and perception – and, perhaps, the development of DSL equipment that could be integrated with DLCs.

“I used to tell analysts that it’s a blessing and a curse,” Smith said. “We have 45,000 remote terminals. It’s going to take us a little longer to get there, but when we do we have a much shorter loop. We can reach a lot of existing DSL customers with 5 Mb/s, and almost all of them with 3 Mb/s.”

In fact, BellSouth has become adept at assembling a variety of big bandwidth options for the last mile. By adopting a strategy of pushing fiber further into the network to reach those remote terminals earlier than most large carriers, the carrier has become a potential test case for the network of the future. The company currently has 1 million homes passed with fiber in the loop and an additional 14 million with fiber fed to a nearby distribution point. The company is the leading proponent of passive optical networks and will keep deploying fiber close to users – assuming the FCC’s triennial review order truly will prevent competitors from piggybacking on those facilities.

“I’m strong proponent of fiber to the home and fiber to the curb,” Smith said. “Once you have that bandwidth in place you’re set. I’m nervous about what the FCC will say. You have to be careful about assuming too much based on the summary comments.”

BellSouth also has the largest collection of broadband wireless licenses of any telco in the country, with swaths of bandwidth in both the MMDS and WCS bands.

What the carrier will send over all those fat pipes is still in question. While it could simply gear up for more Internet access, the company also is exploring video services. BellSouth has been aggressive in the past, launching both wireless and wireline video trials.

“Two years ago, I would have said that DSL is never going to meet the needs of entertainment services,” Smith said. “We’re going to see a point where you could easily use DSL for entertainment.”

In the core network, BellSouth is among the most aggressive in rolling out an MPLS-based backbone. But don’t expect BellSouth to jump on the anti-ATM bandwagon.

“Moving to an MPLS core is the right thing to do, but we’re not going to go rip out ATM elements just because we like MPLS better,” Smith said. “ATM didn’t kill frame relay. I don’t think MPLS will kill ATM.”

Nor will softswitch technology kill off the traditional Class 5 switch in the short term, he added. BellSouth is testing a variety of IP telephony plays, including terminating traffic into South Florida on an IP gateway and reselling Cisco’s AVVID platform for premises-based deployment. In addition, the company is now looking at ways to move to full softswitch implementations.

Like much of its technology transitions, this one will be calculated – and slower than most analysts want. Smith compared the move to softswitches with the transition to digital switching 20 years ago. At the time, digital switches had fewer features than analog switches, but most telcos realized that digital was the wave of the future and started a slow transition.

“I tell anyone who’s been around since then to get out the play book because we’re going to be running the same plays.”

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