Level 3 Communications Inc., a communications and information services company based in Broomfield, Colo., has undertaken a gargantuan project — connecting 150 U.S. cities, Western Europe and the business centers of Asia with a 24,000-mile network of fiber optic cables.
The company recently announced that, as one of 71 hubs in this international network, its Cincinnati operations would play an integral role in routing traffic through the network. Level 3's 36,000 square-foot facility, located downtown at 400 Pike St., will house sales and operational staff as well as routing and switching equipment.
A local network, also constructed of fiber optic cables, will reach out from the facility and spread across Cincinnati, allowing companies to link offices, warehouses, factories and stores throughout the city.
Since this local Web is connected to the international network, corporations could seamlessly link worldwide locations together with one fiber optic network, avoiding the problems of troubleshooting lines leased from different entities throughout the network. The local network will also provide businesses with high-speed, high-capacity connections to the Internet.
While Level 3's marketing efforts will focus mainly on businesses, the primary generators and users of data, spokeswoman Kathy Sattem thinks that individuals also will benefit from the company's presence in Cincinnati.
"We will also market Internet connections to Internet service providers in Cincinnati, so consumers may see dramatically improved performance as they surf the Web," said Sattem.
Internet service providers (ISP's) serve as gateways between home users and the high-speed pipelines of the Internet. Subscribers log onto the Internet through connections established and maintained by ISP's.
But, according to Jerry Lukey, sales manager at Premier Internet, a Cincinnati-based ISP, faster ISP-to-Internet connections will not translate into improved performance for all home users.
"The customer's modem is the bottleneck," Lukey said. "We have plenty of speed here (where Premier connects to the Internet), but modems and telephone lines slow performance down between us and the customer. An Internet connection is only as fast as its slowest part."
Time Warner Cable and Cincinnati Bell Telephone recently introduced products, Road Runner and Zoomtown, respectively, that greatly increase Internet access speeds by providing a connection between subscribers and ISP's that is more than 50 times faster than traditional dial-up modems.
Lukey said that with the bottleneck of modems removed, Road Runner and Zoomtown subscribers would experience the faster performance offered by Level 3.
And, with increased speed, the Internet experience might improve substantially. Downloading software from the Internet, an often frustratingly slow undertaking, could become quick and efficient. Internet radio stations, Web sites that "broadcast" music, might overcome the slow connections that muddy and garble the music. Video streaming, a technology in which a video image projects over the Internet to the viewer's screen, could become as clear and steady as videotapes, DVDs and television broadcasts. Movies and music, now too large to download except in small pieces or reduced quality, compressed formats, could be easily purchased and delivered over the Internet.
Level 3's network also is noteworthy because it will utilize packet-switching technology, long used to transfer data over the Internet, to carry voice transmissions. In traditional telephone systems, known as circuit-switching systems, an entire circuit or line is dedicated to the transmission of one phone call at a time. No other voice or data traffic may travel along that line while it is in use. Consequently, telephone companies maintain an expensive infrastructure of wires to ensure that customers can always place a call. Even with this immense network of wires, the system might be overloaded on high-volume days such as Mother's Day or Christmas.
Packet-switching technology, on the other hand, is extremely efficient. Data and voice communications are digitized at the source, bundled into packets, tagged with an identifying code and sent to the desired destination. The data packets share the lines, either traditional telephone wires or fiber optic cables, with millions of others as they zip along from source to destination, constantly searching for the fastest route. At the destination they are reassembled and converted back into the original form — either data or voice communications. The entire process is completed so quickly that, in the case of voice communications, a spoken word is immediately heard on the other end of the line.
According to a recent article in Barron's, the efficiency of packet-switching technology results in substantial savings over traditional telephone systems.
"Voice bits carried over traditional circuit-switched networks command prices some 15 times that of data bits traveling on packet-switched systems," the article read.
Internet telephony, a technology that uses packet-switching to route calls over the Internet, has been around for several years. Software such as Internet PhoneJACK and WebPhone offer access to cheap and even free long-distance service. But this technology, inconvenient and cumbersome, has not gained widespread acceptance. Internet telephony calls must originate from a computer equipped with the appropriate software, speakers and a microphone, and the caller must enter long strings of numbers and passwords. And, for all the trouble, the parties often receive poor sound quality.
Level 3 has acquired one company, XCOM Technologies, and partnered with another, Lucent Technologies, to develop a product that it claims will drastically improve the quality of voice communications based on packet-switching.
"The caller will pick up a conventional telephone and dial it exactly like they would to make a regular phone call," Sattem said. "The speed of the connection and the quality of the call will be at least as high as that of a circuit-switched call. We've removed the obstacles to realizing the technological advantages and cost savings of packet-switching."
Later this year, Level 3 will begin marketing this product, IP Voice, to businesses. Resellers might eventually offer it to the consumer market.
GTE, Qwest and IXC Communications are among the handful of companies constructing international fiber optic networks similar to that being built by Level 3. AT&T, MCI, Worldcom and Sprint are slowly incorporating fiber optics and packet-switching into their expansive networks. Level 3's presence in Cincinnati, along with Cincinnati Bell's planned merger with IXC, ensure that Cincinnati will experience firsthand these latest advances in the communications industry.