Networking Pendulum

What was once old, is new again


One of the benefits of age is perspective. You notice that many of the “new” ideas are simply old ones that have come back into vogue, like the swing of the pendulum. The aptness of the metaphor is clear, as history demonstrates a tendency for human events to swing back and forth from one extreme to another.

We see this in politics (conservative vs liberal), we see this in fashion and in telecom networking. Early in my career, while still a systems engineer, I remember one of my first published articles being about the swing from companies using public networks based on X.25 packet protocol (like Datapac) to private networks using their own multiplexors and leased lines. (Note I had just moved from Bell Canada where I supported Datapac to General DataComm where we were selling muxes)

We’ve seen this pendulum swing between using public and private networks for a company WAN many times over the years. Leased private lines gave way to X.25 packet networks, which ceded ground to T1 or T3 networks (or fractional T1 like Megastream). Frame Relay, ATM and then the rise of MPLS, “Multiprotocol Label Switching”. Now we are seeing a challenger in the corporate networking world, SD-WAN, which uses the public Internet and extensive software to try to mimic and replace MPLS.

MPLS can be slow to implement, especially internationally, as it takes time to order and connect all of the connections, especially the final local Ethernet connections at each country. MPLS can also be expensive compared to DIA, Direct Internet Access. In MPLS’s favour, as with most private networks, is it’s inherent security, consistent latency, and guaranteed service levels and Quality of Service (QoS). For overseas voice circuits and critical enterprise data that is essential.

SD-WAN, based on the now ubiquitous public Internet, is now widely available, quickly deployable and seemingly less expensive. By using multiple business grade Internet connections (DIA which should be contention free) and some fancy software , it can approach the level of consistency of MPLS. Is it less expensive ? Well, vendors will make that case based on pure network costs, but soft costs of running and maintaining the equipment and connections have to be factored in.

The tension between secure and reliable private networks and less expensive shared public networks (like X.25, Internet and cloud) is one that has been going on for years, and watching this pendulum swing back and forth is something I find fascinating.

2020 Vision

Photo Credit ; Carmi Levy, @carmilevy more at http://writteninc.blogspot.com/

The world does not need another blog post about predictions or trends for the coming New Year. Or another Top 10 list. Those are far too common and overdone. For this years first blog post, I thought I would instead focus on a few topics that I see becoming of increasing importance, especially to service providers in the competitive space against Big Telco. You can read about 5G, AI, IoT and other acronyms elsewhere.

Telecom Fraud
The last few years have seen a dramatic increase in fraud on our networks. Hacking by criminal networks is easier than ever and they avoid prosecution by doing it across international borders. The migration to IP networks and softswitches have opened up new avenues fro the bad actors to attack. This trend shows no signs of abating, meaning that as an industry we must put more time, effort and manpower into safeguarding our networks and businesses to avoid catastrophic losses.

The Decline of Voice
Worldwide voice revenues continue to decline. We have highlighted this trend before here. Silicon Valley giants like Microsoft (Skype), Facebook (WhatsApp, Messenger), Apple (FaceTime) and Google have sucked away a lot of the consumer voice and messaging traffic from worldwide networks. As service providers we need to look for other sources of revenue rather than trying to compete for a slice of an ever shrinking pie.

This is where looking at other market sectors such as Enterprises and SMB for growth that are underserved or poorly served by Big Telco come into play. Or looking for markets like International MPLS data circuits or cloud connectivity where Big Telco does not have 90% market share. Finally, the best way to compete against “free” services is not to offer low cost service; rather it is to offer premium, high quality services that Silicon Valley and Big Telco are not equipped to provide. (more on quality here)

Recession is coming
We are now in one the longest, if not the longest, economic expansions in the history of the United States. History has shown that this cannot keep going indefinitely, a recession is coming soon. When the US gets a recession, Canada gets an even bigger one. As competitive service providers we must be prepared for this on two key fronts; expenses and top-line revenue.

Now is the time to tighten the screws on your organization from top to bottom. Examine all costs, especially all S,G & A line items to see where savings can be had. Billing systems, payment services, any form of overhead costs should all be examined and cost savings sought wherever possible.

Top-line revenue ? Here is a counter-intuitive tip from a veteran of many boom-bust cycles. Times of recession can often be times of the best top-line growth for companies like ours. During hard times, business customers are more receptive to moving away from their current providers to be able to save money. This is when they will look to competitive suppliers. So have your marketing and especially your front line sales staff prepared for this opportunity.

I hope these topics gave you few ideas for your business for the coming year. As always, Amitel and AurorA are here to help. Reach out to me to have deeper discussions on the above, or any other pain points you may be experiencing. Looking forward to growing together with you in 2020.

Your Friend in Telecom

Timo

Thanks again to Carmi Levy, @carmilevy for use of his superb photograph. Follow his work at http://writteninc.blogspot.com/

Arctic Fiber Optic Cables

Sea ice melting in the Arctic

A week before Christmas, I shared a story on Twitter from Capacity (here) magazine about a new 2,000 km submarine cable linking Oysanden, Norway (just south of Trondheim) and Killala Bay, County Mayo in the Republic of Ireland. The cable will be called Celtic Norse and will make northern Norway an international hub and very attractive for large data centres. Norway has plenty of land and vast amounts of renewable power and a climate that makes it attractive for hyper scale data centres. The cable will cut the latency to Eastern USA by 30%, effectively making Northern Norway a thousand miles closer to New York than routing south through Oslo and the European continent.

Reading it made me wonder why we cant build more submarine cables in the Canadian Arctic ? Our population in Nunavut is entirely dependent on satellite services. There are some terrestrial cables in the Yukon and Northwest Territories but still large parts of all the three territories are woefully underserved. Resource development such as mines and oil and gas projects need access to modern telecommunications. The people living in the North deserve access to modern telecom as well to thrive and prosper.

If you look at the map of the worlds submarine cables regularly put out by Telegeography, you can see that Iceland is served by multiple fiber optic subsea cables. Greenland is served from Iceland and also from Newfoundland. Even the Svalbard Islands halfway between continental Norway and the North Pole is served by two cables. Why can’t we build them here in Canada ?

One of the most publicized effects of climate change is that the Arctic ice is melting. The ice cover is not as extensive, nor for as long a period. As the ice is receding, new passageways have emerged for laying subsea fiber optic cables. It is a golden opportunity for Canada to better serve our population, businesses and government in the North. It could also be an modern opportunity for the NorthWest passage.

There is a company in Finland, Cinia Group Oy that is building a Northeast passage cable, Arctic Connect, that would stretch from Helsinki to Tokyo. It would run along the Russian Northern Sea route and cut latency between Europe and Asia dramatically. So why cant we in Canada build a route through our NorthWest passage to connect London, U.K. and Tokyo ? Surely financial traders would love a new route that also cut latency.

These are questions that I will be exploring in AurorA in the coming months. You will see new sections coming on this website devoted to Remote Communications. Arctic cables, satellite systems for both voice and Internet and Global IoT machine to machine systems. Connectivity in some of the remotest and harshest environments in the world is an area AurorA will be exploring.

Stay tuned and contact me if you have any interest in these areas as well.

BlackBerry Town

It has been a while since I have written about what I have been reading. So here is a book review on one that may not be on your radar, but would make a good read if you are interested in tech and telecom and innovation in Canada.

I previously reviewed the story of Research in Motion (RIM) called Losing the Signal, by Globe journalists Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff here . This book is different as it explores the wider Waterloo Region tech community that gave rise to BlackBerry and many other great tech companies. I got my copy at the Communitech Annual General Meeting (AGM) this fall. AurorA has been a member of Communitech, our local high tech association dating back to 1998.

The stories in this book were personal to me as I lived through this history; many of the names, events and people mentioned are very familiar to me. After graduating Engineering at the University of Waterloo in 1983 I had lived and worked in telecom all across Ontario before starting AurorA in international telecommunications and then moving back to Waterloo in 1996. Just when the fun was really starting.

What Chuck Howitt, a retired reporter from the Waterloo Record, describes in this book is that there was a lot going on before the emergence of RIM (BlackBerry) and there is still a lot going on in Waterloo after the fall from grace of the company that invented the modern smartphone. This area has always had an entrepreneurial spirit that was reflected in companies that excelled in many industries ; originally rubber, whiskey, electronics. (BF Goodrich, Uniroyal, Seagrams, Electrohome etc). The K/W region was home to people with a strong work ethic informed by the Mennonite “barn raising” ethos that fostered co-operation. The practical leaders of those industries set about founding a new institution, the University of Waterloo.

The University of Waterloo was different from the ivy covered campuses that historically were prevalent in Upper Canada like Queens and the University of Toronto. Its focus was more practical, technological and pragmatic. UW became a worldwide leader in mathematics, computer technology, engineering and Co-op Education. It also had a very novel Intellectual Property policy, that let entrepreneurs retain ownership of their ideas. All of these traits led to many spinoff companies in the area by graduates and even professors.

Between 1996 and 1998, six local tech firms went public (when that was still the preferred way to raise money, don’t get me started on private equity and unicorns). They were OpenText, MKS, Descartes, ComDev, Dalsa and RIM. All of a sudden, the world took notice of what was happening in Kitchener/Waterloo. Outside of the San Francisco Bay area, this was the place to be in tech.

There are many great stories in the book about the evolution of this tech ecosystem, about Communitech, about the two founders of RIM, Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, and about the meteoric rise of BlackBerry. Some superb local stories about the growth and dealing with the growing pains. The other organizations that the RIM co-founders fostered like CIGI, The Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and the Institute for Quantum Computing. And of course he describes the fall from grace of Blackberry.

Some people thought the demise of BlackBerry after the competitive threats from Apple, Samsung and Google’s Android would spell the death of Waterloo Region. But this book also describes the resilience of the area, the diversity and depth of the talent and the rise of other generations of tech firms; Kik, Sandvine, Desire2Learn and others like North ,Vidyard, Auvik, Miovision, ClearPath Robotics. Waterloo Region remains the highest density of start-ups outside of Silicon Valley. And it is still the epicentre of tech in Canada.

So if you are interested at all in tech and telecom and innovation, I highly recommend that you pick up and read this book.

Choosing Quality over Least Cost Routing provides Better long term value

Why Least Cost Routing is too expensive
AurorA has operated in the International Telecommunications market since 1994. Since that time the telecom landscape has evolved and transformed and the pace of change has accelerated. The liberalization and deregulation of telecoms since the 1990’s, the move to native Internet Protocol (VoIP) and the deployment of fiber optic networks spanning the globe have driven voice termination prices steadily downwards. Per Telegeography, the annual CAGR for International Telephony between 1983 and 2007 was 15%; if we now include Skype and other OTT apps international voice traffic is still growing over 15% per year. People still want to talk with friends, family and business associates overseas.


Choosing Quality over Least Cost Routing is is the central philosophy at AurorA. In our view the concept of Least Cost Routing (LCR) for international voice traffic is outdated, ultimately more expensive and leads to substandard business outcomes. Choosing the highest quality termination, i.e. a direct route that passes true Calling Line ID (CLID), actually leads to better value and over a longer period of time, higher revenue and lower overall total costs.


The factors behind this philosophy are a) Total revenue and cost versus a simple rate per minute b) the importance of a superior Dial Plan c) Mitigating fraud exposure d) working with like-minded carriers in the industry to reduce fraud


Total Revenue and Long Term Costs versus Simple Cost per Minute
Direct costs are lower if you choose premium quality over a cheaper but lower quality route. The LCR way will lead to call failures and trouble tickets. Customers will complain. The cost of chasing trouble tickets can be substantial as well as the re-routing necessary until the faulty route is fixed. Customer service staff to take the calls and service technician costs will increase. These costs can quickly eat up the lower rate per minute of the cheap route.


Secondly, only a small percentage of customers that experience poor quality or call failures will actually complain and take the time to put in trouble tickets. The silent majority will simply stop using your service and use an alternative. They will, however, complain internally to their management team about the poor experience which degrades your brand.


Top-line revenue will then also decline over time, initially from customers not using your sub-quality voice service, but further once your organization develops a reputation for poor quality. The maxim “How you do one thing is how you do everything” describes that phenomenon. Customers will not renew, or would look more favourably on competitors offerings. One poor niche allows a competitor an advantage and an avenue to exploit.


This is especially true if your customers are enterprise or business customers. Commercial customers demand excellent quality from your entire service offering. International voice termination may be only a small fraction of your portfolio but if they cannot rely on the calls completing each time, every time with superb “pin drop” audio quality than it would reflect poorly on the rest of your service offering.


Insist upon the highest quality, premium international voice termination. The penny pinching of using an LCR is not worth it, and over the long run higher revenues and lower costs accrue from providing superior quality service to your customers.


A Superior Dial Plan is essential
Route guides for terminating traffic used to be simple; there was a rate per country to terminate a call to a landline telephone and maybe, maybe a second rate to terminate a call to the new cellphones. There were less than 300 lines on the spreadsheet.


Now, there are carriers whose A-to-Z rate sheet can offer thousands of pricing codes; still the landline rate with perhaps some other routes to major cities and a breakout now for each mobile carrier in the country but there are also an increased amount of expensive premium rates that are a potential risk for fraud.


In Canada and the U.S. in the 1990’s there was an explosion in the use of 900 or 976 numbers to offer premium services at a high per minute call rate that would be charged to the caller on their phone bill. Examples included weather reports, psychic hot lines and especially adult (phone sex) chat lines. The high per minute rates could lead to large phone bills very quickly and scammers would use all kinds of tactics to get people to call these numbers as they would get a split of the revenue from the phone company for each call. Consumers and businesses smartened up and blocked 900/976 number and eventually the Internet came and killed that particular market.


Overseas countries still have premium numbers and they live on through various names; Special Services, Non-Geographic Numbers, Universal Numbers, Telematic Services. etc. These numbers are premium in that usually they are at least ten times the rate of normal termination. They can have some legitimate applications; for example non-geographic numbers refers to a remote number, not tied to a physical destination such as if I wanted a Cyprus number to ring to my cellphone when I was elsewhere so my Cyprus customers could reach me.


They can be used for darker purposes though, through a scam called International Revenue Sharing Fraud (IRSF). In IRSF, the carrier in the far end country that owns the number ranges, leverage blocks of numbers they own by applying higher rates and assigning them to resellers outside of the country. Then hackers obtain these numbers, attack PBX’s and IP PBX’s and then machine generate calls. They then share the burst of revenue generated with the carrier in the country that owned these numbers providing a quick source of cash.


So how can you protect yourself ? It comes down to your own dial plan. You want to make sure that you don’t allow access to any premium numbers with such creative names like those listed above. When choosing what international carrier to use to terminate your traffic with, beware of those whose dial plans are riddled with such premium ranges, even if they seem to have low rates otherwise. It may be an arbitrage ambush. If they have many more premium pricing breakouts that do not exist on other carriers rate sheets you should avoid them like the plague. It doesn’t take many calls to the premium numbers to swamp any anticipated savings from using their “low” per-minute rates.


This is where an LCR that routes only based on a cheap per minute rate can get fooled by hidden premium ranges in suspect dial plans.


Mitigating Fraud Exposure
International Telecommunications has become a high volume, low margin industry. That is why we believe that you should trust your traffic to a partner who provides value beyond simply completing calls at “the lowest rate” via LCR. That approach can actually cost you big time ! You want a partner who provides high quality service and is motivated in protecting you and your customers from fraud, because even a single money-losing event is one too many and can wipe away any per-minute savings in an hour.


There are numerous sophisticated telecom fraud schemes in the world. Some have been around for decades, others are new and improved. The estimated global telecom toll fraud is US$38 billion in losses per year. The CFCA, Communications Fraud Control Association, cites telecom fraud as the #1 fraud committed outpacing identity theft, IRS fraud and credit card theft.


What can we do to mitigate and minimize the losses to the criminal gangs and hackers ?

  • Identify suspicious traffic
  • Provide alerts
  • Block the suspicious traffic (while ensuring customer doesn’t reroute call to next route on LCR)
  • Maintain a database and continue to block previous identified fraudulent destinations
  • Ensure a meticulous, accurate worldwide dial plan


Dial Plan ? How does my A to Z route guide help mitigate fraud exposure? Well let me go through the list and explain.


The global network carries hundreds of billions of voice minutes on an annual basis by wholesale carriers such as Tata, Orange, T-Systems etc. Using Big Data and AI, these carriers can detect suspicious call patterns and trends. Even with the size and complexity involved, this takes place in near real-time. Once detected, an alert is promptly sent to the affected customer.


At AurorA we go a step beyond that by pro-actively blocking the suspicious traffic stream immediately upon the alert (for all of our customers). Blocking, however, is only part of the solution. To keep your route guide from automatically going to the next choice, the proper non-routable ISUP/SIP release code is sent to indicate fraud blocked numbers so that it doesn’t just propagate through the route guide.


By maintaining a database of fraud events, we can also pro-actively block specific numbers/ranges where fraud has been detected before. Traffic is then monitored for any call attempts made to known fraudulent numbers as well as to any unallocated number ranges.


Calls to unallocated numbers may be fraud as well. A reseller may make a deal with the number range owner, usually in a low volume, high cost destination for exclusive rights to certain of these number ranges. Often they are called premium or “special” . A regular report of call attempts made to blocked numbers can be a warning sign of criminals testing your network, to see if calls complete to their chosen fraudulent numbers.


The key is to ensure that your dial plan is constantly up-to-date with current worldwide numbering (updated weekly) and that you avoid using carriers that have a plethora of such premium or special number ranges on their dial plans. Further safety can come by pro-actively blocking high-rate destinations where you know that your end customer base has no call volume to.


AurorA is a member of the i3Forum
In 2007, eight of the world’s leading carriers set up the i3Forum. It was initially meant to expedite the international telecommunication’s industry to IP but has since broadened its mission. The i3Forum’s approach is open, simple and pragmatic and it aims to;

  • Represent : the views of the International Carrier Ecosystem
  • Bring together : focus on topics that require joint work and collaboration across the Ecosystem
  • Transform : enable and facilitate the role of carriers in the timely emergence of new ecosystems, and new technical, operational and commercial models
  • Guide : publish recommendations for industry Stakeholders
  • Share : foster cooperation and sharing of best practices between industry stakeholders
  • Educate : contribute to the industry learning on these topics
  • Inform : provide market research, case studies, position papers…


The i3Forum now has 29 members including such major carriers as AT&T, iBasis, Telefonica, Orange, Tata, T-systems, Vodafone and others.


The i3Forum has a roadmap and focuses on a few key topics that require industry collaboration . The one that is near and dear to AurorA’s heart is the Fight against Fraud.


Fraud in international telecommunications is a huge and growing issue. Hackers and criminal gangs now make more money from Telecom Fraud than they do selling illegal drugs. It is an issue that cannot be resolved by any one single carrier; we need to work together as an industry to combat this scourge.


I am honoured and humbled to say that AurorA International Telecommunications Inc. has been accepted into the i3Forum as a member, specifically as a “Friend of i3Forum” . AurorA believes and supports what the i3Forum is trying to accomplish, especially in the Fight against Fraud. I hope to be able to get information, updates and best practices and also be able to contribute where I can. On social media and on its blog, AurorA promotes the i3forum and its objectives.


At AurorA we insist upon serving you with the highest quality, premium international voice termination. The Six Sigma philosophy highlights that the penny pinching of using a LCR is not worth it, and over the long run higher revenues and lower costs accrue from providing superior quality service to your customers


Choose to use a quality, reputable carrier who you trust with your overseas calls.


If you have any further questions, please feel free to contact us. This post is an aggregation of some of the material on our blog that you can find here

Also, a thank you to Robert Benlolo of Tata whose expertise in this field has provided me with guidance.

This article first appeared as a LinkedIn article here

2019 Canadian ISP Summit – Day 4

Day 4 ? But the conference only ran from Nov 4 to 6 ? How could there be a Day 4 ?

Well when you are self-employed like I am it takes a full day AFTER the conference just to try to get caught up. There is the large backlog in the email inbox, phone calls to return, meetings to attend.

There is the followup from all the social media posts. I made the commitment to blog each day of the Summit, and really appreciate that you readers took the time to follow along on my website and left great comments on my Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter feeds.

Finally, there is the followup from the pile of business cards that I came home with. I will connect with you all on LinkedIn and Twitter, and send you some details on AurorA and Amitel to remind you that when you need something “International”, contact me, “Your Friend in Telecom”.

Looking forward to next year’s Canadian ISP Summit, Nov 2 to 4, 2020, the 10th anniversary edition.