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AT&T looks to get its priorities straight

The long-distance carrier introduces an Ethernet service for the health care and government sectors that sacrifices a data-prioritizing feature in the name of affordability.

The world's biggest data consumers don't think priority is such a big priority, an AT&T executive said Monday.

"Priority" is a buzzword networking executives use to describe assigning levels of importance to network traffic. The practice is intended to ensure that a company's most important data gets through a crowded connection.

But it's a different story for the health care industry and government agencies, whose notoriously large data appetites have created a market for connections 10 times the size of a typical data pipe. Since these customers haven't yet come close to stressing their connection's capacity, they have no need for expensive and hard-to-manage priority systems, AT&T Ethernet Services Director Franco Callocchia said.

It's a philosophy AT&T is trying to prove with a new Ethernet service, introduced Monday, that's aimed at the largest consumers of data anywhere in the world. The carrier's Ethernet Switched Service Metropolitan Area Network offers all the latest gizmos except one: the ability to prioritize traffic on a network, Callocchia said. Most of the company's competitors offer some kind of priority.

"It sounds counterintuitive," Callocchia said during a conference call with analysts. "But we haven't found customers filling that 1-gigabit pipe yet."

Although Callocchia didn't disclose pricing for the new service, he said the absence of a priority feature would make the offering "very competitive."

AT&T will soon learn if it's making the right move. The new Ethernet service is up against similar ones nearly every network provider, including the nation's major local and long-distance providers, are offering.

But Callocchia left AT&T enough wiggle room to add priority to its new service, should it fail to attract any interest. "It's something we're watching now," he said. "But it has not been raised as a serious customer issue."

Representatives of AT&T competitors Sprint Communications, Verizon Communications and MCI had no immediate comment.