21CN Compatible?

The channel appears to lurching inexorably towards another potential crisis of epic proportions that will eclipse the frenetic activity that surrounded what turned out to be the damp squib of Y2K. This time we could see fireworks!

By 2009, and it is only three years away, BT’s 21CN will deliver dial tone via broadband and it appears highly unlikely that a significant proportion of the installed base of PBX systems in the UK will be compatible with the network. Moreover, with the other significant UK network operator, Cable & Wireless, also introducing their own next generation network (NGN) over a similar time frame it is by no means certain that interoperability for PBX on the differing networks will mean they can all ‘talk’ to each other.

The revelations came to light as Comms Business Magazine interviewed BT’s Director of 21CN Design & Development, Daryl Dunbar for another article scheduled for publication later this year. Asked what would happen to all the legacy phone systems and equipment in the market such as Nortel and Avaya etc. and would users need to swap out these systems Dunbar replied:
“Let’s start with the simple ones; residential single line sets will work exactly as they do today. 21CN is analogous to the move from analogue to digital in the sense that your rotary (POT) phone works just fine on a digital switch but if you want to access a feature that needed ‘touch tone’ services such as voicemail then you needed to purchase a touch tone phone. 21CN will be largely similar to that, the traditional phone service will work but if you want to use VoIP, such as with BT Communicator, then you need a broadband connection phone and so forth.

As far as PBX’s are concerned, there hundreds and thousands of such private systems in the network and we are looking at what we can do to test that equipment to see if it will work with the new (21CN) system. Some of that kit is based on old technology and services such as ISDN and even pre-ETSI ISDN and some of those products may be impacted over time.
If I look at broad picture legacy, so we get to talk about all the other TDM style connections, we are not moving them all over to 21CN on day one. We are talking about the PSTN, so we are talking largely about moving those residential lines, business lines as well, but maybe not necessarily trunk lines. This is something we are aware of is perhaps the best answer. We are working, both ourselves, and with the other providers in the UK, to try and identify all those systems that might be impacted and how as an industry we can handle that migration because they have customers. Cable & Wireless, who are launching their own NGN will have the same issues and will need to know the same thing.”

Comms Business Magazine put it to Dunbar that we believed what he was saying was that users with older PBX systems may not be supported on the new 21CN network and therefore shut out of access to the new features and applications being launched on that network. Essentially, there would be a two tier hierarchy of access with many companies disadvantaged in the process by not having 21CN compatible PBX systems and that PBX vendors would make 21CN compatibility a constituent part of their sales pitch for the next three years.

Dunbar commented, “It is entirely possible. I would not want to go so far as to say this is another Y2K thing, well maybe it is, but that turned out to be not nearly as bad as predicted. There is a possibility of some older PBX systems having difficulty with 21CN but we are making every effort to minimise the problem and it will be virtually impossible for BT to identify every PBX out there. We are working with other telephone operators as well as the PBX providers and we intend to set up a laboratory environment where they can come in and test their PBX systems. There are working groups, but these are in their infancy at the moment.”

We see opportunities and threats from all quarters here and the industry needs to act quickly – if that is possible – to allay fears and concerns not only for end users in the run up to 2009 but also to the channel players who have invested so heavily in legacy systems. Perhaps too this is a catalyst for resellers to progressively adopt VoIP solutions in to their portfolio. Comms Business Magazine will continue to report 21CN compatibility issues and will be compiling a list of compatible PBX systems and vendor statements on 21CN compatibility on our web site.

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