Since 1999, the carrier has offered services to connect offices over an IP network using a technology called , or MPLS. But up to this point, customers have only been able to access the network via Frame Relay or ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode) links. Now, AT&T will offer a service that uses pure IP or private line connections to link various sites, providing an IP connection end to end.
In terms of functionality, the distinction between pure IP access and Frame Relay or ATM access isn't great. But managing pure IP services is much easier, said Dan Blemings, product manager for IP services at AT&T. As a result, the new service will be priced lower than AT&T's other services, which require Frame Relay and ATM connections. Blemings would not say how much cheaper these services will be. He said AT&T decided to add the new offering to its suite of virtual private network services at the request of customers.
"Some customers are religious about wanting IP end to end," Blemings said. "So we decided instead of trying to convince them that Frame Relay and ATM access does the same thing as IP, that we'd just give them what they want."
MPLS is a convergence technology that allows data, voice and video traffic to share resources on the same network. Because it allows carriers to offer many different services over the same network, it's much cheaper to operate, maintain and manage. The technology uses labels to mark customer traffic and keep it separate from other traffic. A carrier that has an IP MPLS backbone can offer a variety of services from the same network, such as voice over Internet Protocol services and video on demand.
AT&T was one of the first carriers to launch a core network based on MPLS. But competitors, includingand , also are using the technology.
"Our customers are looking for one service that can provide a variety of different access technologies," Blemings said. "We'll be able to offer access via Frame Relay, ATM and now IP. Giving them choice allows us to accommodate their needs as they grow."
For now, AT&T will be using PPP, or Point-to-Point Protocol, as the IP access technology for hooking customers into its MPLS backbone. The company said it also will eventually offer IP access using Ethernet, the most widely used transport technology within corporate networks. By extending Ethernet into the carrier network, companies will be able to connect offices in different locations as if all the locations were on the same local area network.