SS7 Key Enabler for Next-Generation Network Services

Posted: 10/1998


SS7 Key Enabler for Next-Generation Network Services

By Peter Meade

SS7 now stands to play an important part in next-generation networks,
permitting introduction of more advanced services and helping improve the interoperability
between the public switched telephone network (PSTN) and Internet protocol (IP)-based

While signaling system 7 (SS7) out-of-band signaling protocol represents one of the
biggest advancements in telephony since Watson was first summoned, its importance
sometimes takes a back seat to sexier technologies du jour. Yet, it’s SS7 that ensures a
call can be completed before it is even switched from the local loop, and it’s SS7 that
makes networks less likely targets for fraudsters.

In addition to improving network efficiency, SS7 now stands to play an important part
in next-generation networks, permitting introduction of more advanced services and helping
improve the interoperability between the public switched telephone network (PSTN) and
Internet protocol (IP)-based networks.

As an enabler, SS7 particularly will be important to carriers in the rollout of
sophisticated voice-activated products and technologies, says Marc Regberg, vice president
of Venture Development Corp. (VDC), a Natick, Mass.-based research house. The expansion of
the voice messaging into "unified messaging"–the convergence of voice mail,
e-mail and fax–along with "personal assistant" voice services has created a new
market segment that will be key to service providers in differentiating themselves in the
marketplace, Regberg says.

While the heyday of unified messaging still is to come, Paul Stockford, principal
analyst for the Cahners In-Stat Group, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based consultancy, agrees with
Regberg that hardware and software addressing the market is starting to emerge. He points
to the mid-August partnering of Lucent Technologies Inc., Murray Hill, N.J., with Sun
Microsystems Inc., Palo Alto, Calif., as definitive proof. The two companies have stated
that they will develop a unified message platform for telcos and Internet service
providers (ISPs) that will make it possible to send, receive and manage electronic, voice
and fax messages from any telephone or personal computer (PC).

Citing only Unisys Corp., Blue Bell, Pa., as a contender today in the telco market,
Stockford says Lucent needed to respond quickly because the Sierra product from its Octel
Messaging Division is aged and does not support unified messaging.

Carriers can expect more such announcements, Regberg says. "We’re happy with the
fast pace," he says. "There is a price curve for early adopters, but as prices
come down and functionality increases, we expect to see more products and users."

While Stockford agrees, he offers a dash of skepticism about the pace. "The
incumbent LECs (local exchange carriers) are not as far along in as they could be because
many are still nursing old [voice messaging] systems," he says. "CLECs
(competitive LECS), meanwhile, may actually have an advantage here as their networks are
newer or just being built out."

Several of these CLECs are building out networks that are betting on IP to best PSTN.
While IP-based carriers such as Level 3 Communications Inc., Omaha, Neb., and Qwest
Communications International Inc., Denver, are putting a bundle of Wall Street greenbacks
on IP, VDC’s Regberg categories some of the early IP efforts as "lacking hard
data" and "a lot of hype." He cites the adventures of NetSpeak Corp.
"an example of hype that was not backed with real numbers." Backed by such
big-name players as Munich-based Siemens AG and Motorola Inc., Schaumberg, Ill., the Boca
Raton, Fla.-based company’s stock shot from high single digits to the low 30s before
dropping down again when its product did not deliver as expected, Regberg recalls.

"IP is still a market to keep an eye on," he says. "You must when
players like Cisco [Systems Inc.], Ascend [Communications Inc.] and Lucent say they’re
interested. IP telephony will be an important market, but who will be the leaders? [IP
pioneer] VocalTec [Inc.] has seen its stock fall, so sometimes it’s not so good to be a
pioneer." VocalTec’s stock has fluctuated as high as 33 and as low as 81/2.

Despite some rocky going, VDC telecommunications analyst Pete Dickson says SS7 remains
a key enabler for IP telephony gateways. Mike Margolis, president and CEO of Tekelec,
Morrisville, N.C., concurs, saying that SS7 will play a major role in the convergence
between IP-based networks and the PSTN.

Margolis says he "is gratified to see SS7 as the pre-eminent command and control
technology endorsed by data switch manufacturers as they enter the PSTN with IP-based
solutions." SS7 is the best chance for interoperability between these two networks,
delivering feature transparency to IP networks and new data solutions to the PSTN, he

Embracing LNP

Local number portability (LNP) also will drive competition in SS7 networks.

"In any country where competition has been mandated, LNP is what makes competition
something worth mandating," Regberg says. "It’s an enormous task, from choosing
the technology to deploying and implementing, but the result [which lets consumers keep
their telephone numbers even if they change carriers or locations] will be more innovative
and robust service offerings at a lower cost to consumers." Embracing LNP should pay
off with greater bandwidth for T1, frame relay and asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) as
well as a growing acceptance of computer-telephone integration (CTI), he says.

A government mandate calls for LNP implementation in the top 100 metropolitan service
areas (MSAs) by New Year’s Eve, and Regberg says consumers can’t wait. "There have
been all sorts of horror stories," he says, "(such as) customers moving a
quarter-mile away and not being able to take their phone numbers with them. This will all
end with LNP."

While achieving permanent LNP will reduce a lot of the finger-pointing between the
incumbent LECs and other service providers, Regberg says an argument that is just
beginning is one that bus architecture carriers should support. While Versa Module Europe
(VME) has been the favorite standard for years, Regberg says major suppliers such as
Hewlett Packard Co., Palo Alto, Calif., and Motorola have started giving stronger
consideration to CompactPCI for their SS7 applications, in part thanks to its smaller
footprint and rugged nature. CompactPCI also should warrant consideration from service
providers because it supports "hot swapping," which lets them change out faulty
components without disrupting service.

For vendors of SS7 products to deliver to the greatest extent possible, VDC suggests
that they do not go at it alone. Instead, they should form more alliances and strategic
partnerships, Regberg says. The new pairings should not be just between vendors–such as
the recent pairings of Ascend and the former Cascade Communications Inc., Bay Networks
Inc. and Northern Telecom Ltd. (Nortel), or Cisco and Summa Four Inc.–but also with
systems integrators and applications developers. This kind of creative pairing is more
likely to give service providers a choice among a broader suite of advanced subscriber
services, he says.

"Service providers, if given their choice, would rather deal with a one-stop shop
for all their needs," Regberg says. "These partnerships are more likely to
deliver what they need."

Peter Meade is Executive Editor of PHONE+ Magazine.

SS7-Ready Lines

In North America alone, there are 163.2 million residential and business telephone
lines which access central office (CO) switches. Of this number, 160.3 million, or 98.2
percent, have signaling system 7 (SS7) connectivity. The remaining lines will be equipped
no later than 2000, with most equipped by 1998.

Source: Venture Development Corp., Natick, Mass.

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