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US West splits up voice, data traffic

The firm announces a limited rollout of a system for carrying voice and Net data traffic on separate networks.

US West announced a limited rollout of a system for carrying voice and Internet data traffic on separate networks.

The move, announced yesterday, is intended to decongest traditional phone systems and cut the number of busy signals tying up both Net and phone users.

The way it works now, most Net users program their modems to dial up their Internet service providers and then they get connected. But the actual routing process is a bit more complex: The call first goes to the Net user's phone company. The Net user's telephone company then routes the call to the telephone company of the Internet service provider. As a final step, the ISP's telephone company routes the call to the ISP itself.

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The leg of the journey between the two telephone companies is the source of much of the current traffic congestion.

With the new system, ISPs will lease equipment at the US West central office and the dial-up connection will go more directly from the user to the telephone company and then to the ISP.

Most importantly, to ease traffic, US West will route data calls over a preexisting high-speed frame-relay network that is separate from the phone network.

US West is rolling the system out on a trial basis at two Seattle-area ISPs, Silverlink and Sinclair. The company has tentative plans for further rollouts in Minneapolis, Denver, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City over the next year or so, according to US West representative Jeremy Story.

This isn't the first instance of a telco separating voice and data. Many telcos, including US West, offer digital subscriber line DSL access, which does something similar. But in the case of DSL, voice and data calls are automatically routed over a data network and switched to the phone network if they fall below a certain frequency.

US West's system is different also in that it will separate voice from data for common 14.4-, 28.8-, and 56-kbps connections, rather than the still-rare high-speed DSL connections.

"This is intended to give us a solution now, rather than waiting for something that's still two or three years down the road," Story said, referring to the sluggish adoption of DSL technology.

The new system's primary beneficiary will be the overtaxed phone network, and Story acknowledged that the burden will fall on US West to convince ISPs to incur the leasing costs and adopt the new method. But ISPs that do adopt it will find themselves benefiting, he predicted.

"This way they won't have to buy equipment that they have to maintain on their own premises, or deal with depreciation and obsolescence and a lot of other problems ISPs currently face," Story said. "This will be good for the network, but it will also be good for them."

US West's back-end system will use Signaling System 7 (SS7) technology to divvy up data and voice calls. SS7 is the software that ordinarily governs the switching of phone calls to and from central offices, but US West has found a new way to use it in distinguishing data from voice, according to Story.