The Lingo of Business Services
by Leslie Ellis // May 22 2006
By now you’ve probably caught a whiff of the savory smells wafting from what used to be called “commercial services,” and what industry people now call “business services.” Linking today’s cable plant, and maybe a few wireless extenders in tricky areas, to small and medium businesses, to handle their broadband and telecommunication needs.
Those involved in it proclaim business services as the Next Big Thing to grow cable industry revenues, after the residential voice push adds the “triple” to those triple-play bundles.
Cox, the undisputed master of cable-delivered business services, likes to say that one capital dollar invested into the business segment returns 70 cents, in 12 months — and 42 cents of that is cash flow.
Many others wonder why business services aren’t a bigger push right now.
For whatever reasons, business services always seems to land below the top-3 stated priorities of U.S. cable operators. (Again, except Cox, which holds business services equal to residential broadband services.)
The people working on business services move as a pioneering group, not unlike the people who began and work in the local ad sales sector. Both groups haul in admirable gobs of cash. But because neither touches residential services, both always seem to thrive on the periphery. Nonetheless, they’re either hugely successful (ad sales), or poised to be hugely successful (business services).
If you’ve ever attempted a deep dive on the business services sector, one thing sticks out fast: It’s a whole different language. T-1, multi-point Ethernet, metro Ethernet, mesh networks, MPLS.
Parts of the business services lingo borrow heavily from telephone network language — a 100+ year old lingo. Other parts delve into data networking terms: Business services generally live “higher up” in the network, and those higher-up layers speak a different flavor of tech. Plus, business customers talk their lingo, which matters, because it’s what they pen into their service level agreements.
This week’s translation aims to break some of it down. But be forewarned: You could spend a decade of your life just skimming the terminology.
So far, the sweet spot in cable-delivered business services is the sale of broadband data links to businesses with fewer than 100 employees. Adding voice to that mix is next. Cox, and others dabbling in the sector, point to government buildings and hospitals as being especially attractive.
In many cases, operators are serving those broadband links over dedicated DOCSIS cable modems — but business service aficionados say that’s small potatoes.
The real action, they say, is in “cellular backhaul” and “T-1 replacement.”
The Haul of Cellular Backhaul
Let’s start where the Big Money appears to be pooling, awaiting capture: Cellular backhaul. Setup: There are 185,000-ish cell towers in the United States. They serve the 207 million of us who use cell phones.
When we talk on our mobile phones, the signal carrying our conversation travels first to the nearest tower, then from there to the phone network, to the destination. If it’s you calling me, and I’m on my mobile, the hand off involves the tower closest to me.
It’s that leg between the tower and the telephone backbone that’s spilling over with potential revenues, observers say. Here’s how that works. Say there’s five carriers on a tower — Verizon, Sprint, etc. Each of them spends around $250/mo. (prices range widely) for that midway link, provided today by telcos in the form of a “T-1 line.”
One cash-capture scenario goes like this: The local cable operator drops a line to the cell tower. The other end hooks to those metropolitan networks that link most cable hubs in most cities, and to the national backbone.
The “let’s make a deal” offer, to the wireless carriers hanging on the tower, is a plump discount from today’s $250/month price. Let’s say it’s 20 percent off of what they currently pay, in exchange for 20 percent of their towers.
On a national basis, twenty percent of 185,000 towers is 37,000 towers. If each tower holds five carriers, and each carrier pays $200/mo., that’s $37 mil. per month — for hauling phone calls from a tower to a network.
Before you get giddy over the numbers, know this: Cellular-side aficionados warn that it isn’t as easy as it sounds. Self-described prima donnas, mobile carriers are vigilant about the service level agreements they request. Advanced testing is a necessity. It’s a whole new discipline, with a new level of customer care.
Still, there’s an overbearing sense of urgency among the mobile carriers to stay ahead of traffic. Text messages are escalating into the range of 9 billion per month; all of us talk more and more on our mobile phones. Says one cell-side technologist: “Talk to the guy who needs to build 500 sites, or 7,000 radios. He doesn’t want anything fancy, he just wants something now. He’ll tell you — get me something that works, and get it to me in two weeks.”
That alone seems a sturdy catalyst to kick business services into a higher gear.
This column originally appeared in the Technology section of Multichannel News.
Bit Torrent and Cable Bandwidth
by Leslie Ellis // May 08 2006
In case you missed it, the annual compilation of technical papers from the National Cable Television Association is out. As usual, it’s worth a look, especially if you’re into immersion learning from the industry’s top tech thinkers.
If your copy got lost in the stack, or you’d rather read the Cliff’s notes, this week’s translation focuses on my top pick from this year’s collection: A meticulously researched look into how the file downloading scheme known as BitTorrent impacts broadband networks.
The short answer: Badly. Based on the research, conducted by Terry Shaw, of CableLabs, and Jim Martin, a computer science professor at Clemson University, it only takes about 10 BitTorrent users bartering files on a node (of around 500) to double the delays experienced by everybody else. Especially if everybody else is using “normal priority” services, like e-mail or web surfing, which is what tech people tend to call “best effort” traffic.
One quick side note about this year’s papers: The Superbly Nerdy Title award goes to Scientific Atlanta’s Bryant Best, for this doozy: “Management of Simulated Raman Scattering in CATV WDM Reverse Path Systems.” (And no, he’s not talking about the packaged noodles that boil up fast and cheap.)
BitTorrent and Broadband
The Shaw/Martin paper starts with a few handy stats to pop into the frontal lobes, when thinking about services like BitTorrent: Some 60% of American teenagers equipped with (their parents’) broadband have downloaded audio and video files over peer-to-peer networks; some 18% of all broadband traffic carries the torrents of BitTorrent.
BitTorrent is uniquely more powerful than other peer-to-peer techniques, the authors point out, because it uses a technique called “swarming.” They called it a “radical enhancement” to prior efforts, like Gnutella and KaZaa.
Here’s a simplified view of how swarming works. Say that’s you prowling around for a copy of “Napoleon Dynamite” over your cable modem, using the free BitTorrent software you downloaded onto your PC. You pick the title from a list. In the background, you get what’s called a “tracker,” which watches every other BitTorrent downloader of that title.
In the BitTorrent lingo, the thing you want is the “torrent.” Those who have the whole thing are the “seeds.” They dole out chunks of the digital thing you want. Your tracker interacts with seeds and other BitTorrent trackers, to fetch the chunks you need.
For a popular movie, it’s not unusual to see 30,000 downloaders pulling from each other, and from 200 seeds, the authors found. Once you get swarmed with the whole file, you, too, can become a seed. The more you share, the better download performance you get.
It was that last part that juiced the curiosity of the authors, who wanted to know: Are broadband networks vulnerable to that improved download performance?
A test ensued. Using BitTorrent, the authors repeatedly downloaded an undisclosed but popular-at-the-time movie, sized at 4.3 Gigabytes. They used “packet sniffing” techniques to periodically trace the packets of the download.
At this point, the paper goes into a crazy amount of detail that just won’t fit here. The condensed version: They took the raw data from the download traces, and plugged it into a simulation model. That way, they could figure out how the little picture (repeated downloads from three locations) mapped into the big picture (repeated downloads by zillions of cable modem customers, world-wide.)
In the simulation, the authors looked at traffic patterns across several hundred cable modems, some set up with BitTorrent, some not. Some of them ran normal Web traffic; some ran voice services.
The not-so-shocking conclusion: BitTorrent uses tremendous amounts of bandwidth, especially in the upstream (home outward) direction. How much? Try 10 BitTorrent users gumming up 55% of the upstream signal path, per neighborhood node.
Other fun facts: The average download speed surpasses 500 kilobits per second (kbps). The PC used in the download test interacted with about 40 peers, to collect the chunks of the requested file. After a file was fully ingested, the test PC stayed up as a seed for 13 more hours.
In the paper, the authors avoided recommendations. In the NCTA technical session where the paper was delivered, though, the term “bandwidth management” came up several times. So did talk of prioritization techniques for premium services.
Short of that, if you own and operate services on broadband, there’s probably one practical reality that emerges from peer-to-peer traffic like BitTorrent: It bogs down every other third-party provider of “best effort” services on the link, like Vonage and Skype, of the voice variety, and Slingbox, of the place-shifting variety, and any of the video hopefuls.
But that’s a morbid blessing, because it carries piles of blame about why such-and-such service isn’t working right. Behind the blame is the finger pointing — “I’m not slowing you down, he is.” Translation: More phone calls from cranky customers.
This column originally appeared in Multichannel News.