No optical illusion: MCI, Hitachi field trial takes optical cross-connects outside the lab

No optical illusion: MCI, Hitachi field trial takes optical cross-connects outside the lab

Wayne Carter

MCI and Hitachi Telecom are taking another step in the direction of an optical network layer: MCI is deploying Hitachi’s optical cross-connects in a field trial in Dallas.

The trial will take place on MCI’s Dallas-area fiber ring, which includes two downtown Dallas office buildings, MCI’s International Lab and a network junction in Richardson, north of Dallas, and a network junction in Irving, west of Dallas.

The test will involve five Hitachi optical cross-connects and will include live voice, video and data applications, including frame relay and asynchronous transfer mode, on the existing Sonet infrastructure.

The trial is a key phase in MCI’s development of an optical network layer to manage traffic at the backbone level, said Jack Wimmer, transmission network development director for MCI. Developments in capacity–particularly OC-192 capability and the increasing deployment of wavelength division multiplexing (WDM)–are making it crucial for carriers to develop systems that can more efficiently manage the high volumes of traffic being aggregated onto backbone networks, he said.

“As WDM becomes more prevalent, [optical cross-connect development] becomes more and more important,” Wimmer said. “Capacity demands we’ll be able to meet with OC-192 and WDM. This will make it easier to manage.”

The field trial is the latest development in a relationship that began almost two years ago. The companies verbally agreed to develop an optical cross-connect in the fall of 1995, and have been pursuing the project since, said Phil McCall, transmission products account marketing vice president for Hitachi.

The goals for the optical cross-connect are to provide a bit rate-independent network layer that can carry aggregated traffic regardless of the individual signals’ original bit rates. Removing the bit rates from the equation makes it easier to provision circuits and restore network operations. While the optical cross-connect has passed the lab portion of its testing, the field trial is a major step in determining how well Hitachi and MCI have dealt with problems that can occur when several cross-connects are managing real network traffic.

“This trial is a verification of the optical fabric that is the core of the optical cross-connect,” McCall said.

The field trial may put Hitachi ahead of the rest of the U.S. interexchange carriers, all of whom are involved in optical cross-connect development at some level. The multiwavelength optical networking consortium’s trials–in which AT&T is participating–are still more lab-oriented, as are optical cross-connect trials Sprint is conducting, said John Ryan, principal in South San Francisco-based Ryan Hankin Kent Inc. And while WorldCom has deployed two optical switches in its network, the technology it uses is less sophisticated than what the optical cross-connect developers are dealing with. “MCI is taking the next step forward,” Ryan said.

And Hitachi’s involvement with the test could give it some leverage with other carriers.

“They’re trying to get their optical cross-connect field-deployed and get the software worked out to meet the requirements of carriers,” he said. “You need to get the stuff out there and see how it hums.”

Wimmer said MCI is looking at a two- to three-year time frame for rolling out optical cross-connects commercially but added that back office and technical issues are crucial. Unpredictable variables will factor significantly in how quickly the company is able to do so.

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