Frame Relay’s Nothing to Fear

Posted: 12/1998

Frame Relay’s Nothing to Fear

By Kieren McCobb

Frame relay exploded on the telecommunications scene in the 1990s and is now a popular
service in its own right. Most agents who have been selling long distance or other telecom
services are familiar with the term, but few are selling it. Here’s why they should.

What is Frame Relay?

Frame relay is a packet-switched service that connects computers and/or computer
networks to one another. Usually this means connecting a customer’s local area network
(LAN) or LANs across distance and between locations.

"Packet switched" means the data being sent are sliced up and placed into a
virtual "envelope" for transmission. The packet contains up to a defined amount
of data, in bytes, and is addressed before being sent. The address information includes an
identifier called a "packet ID" so the data can be reassembled in the correct
order as well as a destination address so the packet knows where it’s going. This address
information is important because packets may arrive at their destination from many
different routes and not necessarily in order.

The equipment on each end of the connection, called a router or a frame relay access
device (FRAD), helps to reorganize the data into their proper order. Occasionally,
particularly during periods of network congestion and high attempted usage, the carrier
discards packets. This is known as packet loss. Again, the equipment on each end is
responsible for monitoring and correcting this loss. (Note: Packet loss is a primary
reason why frame relay still is not a widely used transport technology for interactive
real-time applications such as voice traffic. There are equipment makers who would
disagree, and certainly progress is being made to alleviate the problems, but one need
only experience a voice "call" over the Internet to know firsthand the
compromised quality caused by packet loss and inherent frame characteristics.)

For the carrier, frame relay is a highly efficient means of transporting data, since it
maximizes usage of given bandwidth infrastructure. Packets flow from origin to destination
by any available path in the network, without the need for a dedicated line connecting
those origin/destination sites. Therein lies the popularity of frame relay: It can save a
customer money, and sometimes an enormous amount of money, over more traditional methods.
These include:

  • Point to point (e.g., connecting location A to location B);
  • Star networks, which connect each site to at least two other sites (e.g., A to B as well
    as A to C); and
  • Mesh networks, which connect each site to all other sites (e.g., A to B, A to C as well
    as A to D).

Usually these lines are priced according to mileage and, therefore, become more
expensive with distance. A frame network, on the other hand, connects each location only
to the network itself
instead of another site.

In drawings and diagrams the frame relay network is depicted as a "cloud."
The address information tells the network whose data it is, where it came from and where
it is supposed to go. Since the circuits connecting the customer’s sites only go as far as
the network point of presence (POP)–that is, where the "cloud" begins–the
mileage requirements and corresponding costs decrease. Even better, some local telephone
companies charge zero mileage for frame relay lines, so even the miles to the frame relay
cloud, or POP, cost nothing. The only charge is for the circuit to the cloud, called the
"network access line."

Other Components of Frame Relay

IntraLATA Frame Relay Network
An agent’s customer has five sites within a local access transport area
(LATA), all connected directly to one another by private data lines (i.e., a mesh
network). The headquarters site is location A. The customer installs 56 kilobits per
second (kbps) access lines to the frame relay cloud, supplied by the local telephone
company, from locations B, C, D and E.

The customer needs a "fatter" pipe of bandwidth to be able to receive and
send data to and from the other four locations, so he or she installs a T1 line from
headquarters location A to the frame cloud. Now, instead of each location having four data
lines to connect one with each of the others, the agent only has one (probably) less
expensive access line to the cloud.

Within the cloud, a data link connection identifier (DLCI) identifies each of the five
sites. DLCIs are connected to one another within the cloud by permanent virtual circuits

The other major element of a frame relay network is committed information rate (CIR).
CIR is the bandwidth guaranteed to be available to the customer at any time. Part of the
price the customer pays the carrier for his or her frame network is based upon how much
network is reserved for him or her. In the example here, the customer has 56kbps access
lines to the network. Since the actual need to transmit data is only occasional and
"bursty," though, the customer only needs to reserve 16kbps of bandwidth to be
available for only him or her whenever the need does arise. Because the carrier has more
network left over to sell to other customers (hopefully the company’s) than if the
customer had reserved the whole 56kbps, the carrier will charge the customer somewhat less
for that element of his or her frame network.

InterLATA Frame Relay Network
This uses the same basic example above, except the customer has one of his or her
five locations in another LATA. In this example, it’s location E. Since a long distance
company is required to bring traffic across LATA boundaries, the agent needs to involve
one in the customer’s frame relay network. The basic network design is much the same, but
location E is connected to the long distance carrier’s frame relay cloud, located at the
carrier’s POP, via an access line. The long distance carrier, then, has an interconnection
agreement with the local exchange carrier (LEC) to send and receive frame relay traffic
between them. This hand-off or interface between local and long distance companies is
called a network-to-network interface (NNI). Now the cost for this involvement of the long
distance carrier needs to be added to the other local components of the network. It still
is probably far less expensive than the original mesh network it is replacing.

Selling Frame Relay

Very simply, a frame relay network is a replacement for a mesh or star network. The
concept is that all those dedicated lines that frame relay replaces probably cost the
customer more money each month than the frame network would. An agent’s "opportunity
bell" should ring when he or she learns if a customer has any private lines, data
lines, dedicated analog circuits or tie lines. If the answer is "yes," an agent
should learn what they are being used for and how.

Another way to find out if a customer could benefit from frame relay is by learning
what other sites the customer has and how data presently is transmitted between them. When
the number of sites is four or more, an agent should at least consider pricing out frame
relay service for the customer. Understand, too, that offering frame relay sets an agent
apart from some of the less knowledgeable competition.

Why Sell Frame Relay?

First of all, not every agent understands frame relay technology. It isn’t rocket
science, but there is some learning required. Not every agent is willing to learn. If an
agent is, he or she is a more valuable resource to customers than if the agent only sold
voice minutes. Therefore, the retention of those customers will be higher.

icon.gif (618 bytes)
Image: Frame Relay Network

Next, frame relay pays a commission like any other service. An agent should do some
homework here, though. Some carriers pay an insultingly low commission. My very subjective
opinion is that an agent should make a just profit for his or her efforts (frame relay
involves more work and time), at least in the teens. If an agent’s carrier only pays, say,
6 percent, an agent should see if he or she can invoice his or her customer using a slight
markup, being mindful of tariff and certification requirements. Then again, 6 percent on a
large frame relay network might be perfectly acceptable compensation given the volume.
Every situation differs.

Most importantly, when an agent gets an order for a frame relay network, he or she also
will very frequently earn customers’ voice traffic, too. If an agent works with the
customer through multiple discussions about frame relay and gradually proves himself or
herself, by order time the switched and/or dedicated voice traffic becomes a
"drag-along" item. The agent still is going after the boring, pesky service that
every customer hates to hear and talk about, but he or she now is approaching it through
the side door
. An agent’s credibility now is established and he or she has earned a
level of trust.

Another nice feature of any dedicated service, including frame relay, is that the
service almost always is signed under a term agreement. An agent knows exactly how much
profit he or she has coming and for exactly how long. And it doesn’t take very many
networks, or even one very big one, to take care of a respectable mortgage payment.

Becoming proficient with frame relay is going to require some effort, but it is more
than worth it. The best suggestion I can make for those who wish to learn is to partner
with a good wholesale provider, one who will take the time to provide training. The best
way to learn this technology is to jump into it with a real-world application. If an agent
has someone next to him or her during the learning curve, it’s mighty comforting, and
probably essential to that agent’s credibility. And that’s a win for the customer, the
wholesaler and the agent.

Kieren McCobb is president of TeleConfusion Removal, a consulting firm serving
telecommunications agents. He also is president of AIB Communications Inc., an authorized
Bell Atlantic Corp. agent providing T1, PRI, DS-3, frame relay and Centrex offerings to
end users in the Northeast region. He can be reached by phone at +1 732 249 2821 and by
e-mail at

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