High Expo Attendance a Vote for Competition

One hundred vendors exhibited at the fall 2004 CompTel/ASCENT trade show in Orlando, which was rescheduled from its original dates in mid-September following a hurricane threat to host city Miami. In an apparent vote of confidence for the association and the competitive telecom industry, attendance reached more than 2,000 by Monday despite the change of venue and timing, which crossed both Halloween and Election Day.

The thing I found incredible about this conference — despite rescheduling it in a month and that everyone showed up — is the buzz, says H. Russell Frisby, CompTel/ASCENT CEO, in his opening remarks Monday afternoon. The industry is strong. Customers are being served. We have a future.

CompTel/ASCENT Chairman Sherm Henderson, CEO of Lightyear, also pointed in his opening remarks to the number of vendors in the exhibit as a sign of the industrys endurance.

The CompTel/ASCENT Expo opened Sunday night in the Spirit of All Hallows Eve, with nearly every stand doling out treats for the attendees. There also were a few tricks on hand with ALLTELs racing simulator and EURs putting contest.

Broadwing used the event for its big coming out party following its acquisition 18 months ago by Corvis Corp. Excel Switching also is back exhibiting at CompTel/ASCENT for the first time since it was spun out of Lucent Technologies Inc.

James Kovaly, system engineering manager with Cisco Systems Inc., says Cisco took a hiatus from the CompTel/ASCENT convention due to deteriorating market conditions, but returned to the show in February. Bolstered by demand and sales as a result of leads generated in Anaheim, Cisco doubled the size of its booth for the fall show.

Kovaly says Cisco is responding to a lot of requests for proposals ranging in value from $50,000 to $25 million in the Southeast for such IP voice equipment as softswitches, network management systems and routing infrastructure. The amount of RFPs, Kovaly says, is 10 times what it was last year in his territory, the Southeast.

Early Monday afternoon, directly across the hall from Cisco, there was a cluster of attendees at Z-Tel Technologies Inc. The Tampa, Fla.-based company is swiftly evolving its business to adapt to changing federal regulations.

Z-Tel is moving towards operating its own local network, representing less reliance on the networks controlled by Verizon Communications Inc. and the other regional phone companies. For example, Z-Tel is planning to implement softswitch equipment and broadband gear in New York, its largest city, to provide phone service and high-speed Internet access to homes and businesses through its direct channel and wholesale distribution, says Z-TEL COO Frank Grillo. He says Z-Tel plans to offer consumers a minimum download speed of 1.5 Mbps.

Still, Z-Tel and other CLECs have not abandoned their reliance on the Bell networks. Last week, the company announced an agreement with Qwest Communications International Inc. The pact will allow Z-Tel to provide phone and broadband services over Qwests network until July 2008.

With wholesale phone regulations having been rejected by a federal appeals court, the FCC is in the process of writing new rules that are expected to make it more expensive for Z-Tel and other CLECs to provide local service over the regional networks controlled by BellSouth Corp., Qwest, SBC Communications Inc. and Verizon.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell has said he wants the commission to vote on new rules in December.

The trend to move more phone traffic over the Internet is clearly driven by changing FCC rules, says Cody Calhoun, director VAR channel development with Level 3 Communications Inc.

Rick Lenhart, director of segment marketing with Level 3, says the company is receiving a significant amount of interest at the show for its wholesale voice products.

Calhoun says Level 3 is planning to make a solution generally available next year that will allow its partners to deliver IP phone service to homes, including emergency 911 service. He says about half a dozen companies predominantly dial-up Internet providers are testing the solution.

Vital to Level 3s growth strategy are such regional partners as traditional VARs, systems integrators and CLECs, he says. Calhoun, who focuses on cultivating relationships with partners targeting the business market, says the timing for launching IP phone service is not consistent across the industry: some companies are doing a soft launch of IP phone service with a one-year implementation, while others sought to deploy the service yesterday.

Certainly, the hot topic on the floor was VoIP. The technology, the equipment, the hardware, the software and transport thats why everybody is here, says Gerald Wilczek, COO for Heritage Communications Corp.

Admitting bias, IP-based carrier Volo Communications Executive Vice President Ron Harden, former co-chairman of CompTel/ASCENT, says VoIPs popularity was not because of the low price points, but because of the enhanced services it offers that are not available in the TDM world.

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