CyberWire Dispatch // Copyright (c) 1994 //

Jacking in from "The Envelope Please" port:

Washington, DC -- After more than a year of poker-faced silence, MCI has finally taken the wraps off its long-awaited Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) strategy. Today, MCI is smiling. Hell, they're probably laughing.

Enduring any number of criticisms, from both the press and the industry, MCI has quietly been working since July of 1993, building and testing a six node ATM test network. The network is built around Northern Telecom's (NT) Magellan Gateway ATM switch.

The state of the network has sufficiently progressed that MCI has announced it's now conducting customer trials on nationwide basis that includes applications ranging from desktop videoconferencing for brokerage offices of Bear Sterns to interactive medical imaging for doctors to remote visualization for scientists. "These real-world ATM customer trials will enable us to better gauge the possibilities and challenges of ATM prior to finalizing our commercial offerings," said Paul Weichselbaum, vice president of data marketing for MCI's Business Markets group.

The controversy surrounding MCI's thought-to-be nonexistent ATM technology has at times been withering. When the National Science Foundation (NSF) recently announced MCI as the winning bidder to build and run its next-generation high speed computer network, known as the Very High Speed Backbone Service (vBNS), industry pundits were rocked on their heels. How, they wondered, could the NSF have possibly awarded the prestigious vBNS contract to a company with no professed ATM strategy?

Charges and counter charges raged across the Internet. Sprint, a losing bidder for the vBNS, filed a protest, claiming in part that the government through the NSF award to MCI, would actually be funding that company's research and development of ATM technology. That process sufficiently smacked of industrial policy, a means whereby the government purposefully chooses one private sector firm over another, giving the winning firm a competitive advantage on the backs of taxpayers.

The hue and cry of the Net community didn't escape congress. During the last week of April, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who heads up the House Government Operations Committee, sent a sharply worded letter to NSF Director Neal Lane, warning that he'd received allegations that NSF's award to MCI was conducted through a "sham competition." Conyers also echoed Sprint's charge that the government might be funding development MCI's ATM technology.

MCI's now enjoying a belly laugh.

Slight of Hand

But the story's not as cut and dried as it might seem. MCI still refuses to divulge exactly what technology and in what configuration it actually proposed in its winning bid. It's safe now to assume, that the cornerstone of MCI's vBNS proposal was its NT-driven ATM network.

MCI claims its ATM network has been in place since July of 1993. At first blush, that seems impossible. NT didn't even announce its Magellan Gateway ATM product until a month later, in August of 1993.

"We gave MCI some first cut, prototype ATM switches in July," said an NT technology wonk. NT turned up those switches later that same month, and the service bucked and spit all the usual technological bugs. But it was in place. "A lot of software changes have been done since then," the NT wonk told Dispatch. "This was a learning experience for all of us," he said.

NT refused to say whether or not they had given the technology to MCI. "Nothing is free in this world," the NT wonk said. "But we partnered with MCI to a large extent to get the benefit of the experience." NT made its last software upgrade to the switches in February he said.

Commercial Use Approved

The ATM announcement by MCI also helps tightens up a rather disturbing situation that has been unraveling in the last few months. That situation involves a statement made by NSF's Director of Networking Computing Steve Wolff regarding pre-approval of the vBNS provider to also sell commercial services across that network. The thought that the government would be paying $50 million to some company to provide a high speed computer network for the nation's supercomputer centers and then turn around and allow it to also make money from a supposed government funded network was, well, unpalatable.

It now appears that Wolff may have had little choice in the matter. There's not a chance in hell that MCI would have agreed to use its ATM network solely as a long haul megabit relay service for the pittance (by eventual commercial market standards) NSF was providing under the vBNS contract. To agree to provide ATM service to only NSF via the vBNS deal would have been commercial suicide. So MCI cut a deal with the NSF: Let us also use the ATM network for commercial purposes or it's no dice.

Strong arm tactics? Maybe. But Sprint would have been in the same position. It has only one ATM network and it's being used for commercial purposes, too. And by comparison, the nation's other as-yet-to-be realized high speed computer link, the Energy Department's ESNet -- a contract eventually worth $55 million -- was *required* to be provided by a company that also used it for commercial purposes. The rub there being, no company was going to let its commercial product tank, thereby stiffing the government users.

But this damn vBNS project is like an onion: As soon as you peel one layer, there's another. In this case, the question that remains is: Why has the NSF chosen to award the vBNS under the loose structure of a cooperative agreement? Under this arrangement, the NSF grantee isn't held to strict, binding contractual terms. If MCI doesn't deliver on promised services to NSF under the vBNS agreement, it can still be paid, and according the NSF's experience with the ill-fated NSFNet, a failed service provider still gets a check in the mail.

Conyers asked similar questions in his letter to NSF Dir. Lane. If MCI has a soon-to-be commercial ATM network, why doesn't the NSF simply contract for those services and put some real enforcement teeth into the deal? The NSF will answer, no doubt, by claiming that as a research and education project, the technology will be "bleeding edge" and by its very nature, unstable and often quirky.

Even MCI admits that its current ATM network isn't bulletproof: "We are continuing to test ATM technology with our customers while allowing time for the standards, equipment and market to mature," MCI's Weichselbaum said. "Our approach is to then harness this technology to offer meaningful and differentiated services to our customers," he said.

In the meantime, MCI will be "experimenting" with our nation's most prestigious R&D facilities, that's all. I know I'll sleep better now.

So, NSF will tell you (and has probably already told Conyers), that when you're pushing the technological envelope, the service provider shouldn't be held to the strict confines of a contract. After all, building the nation's premiere high speed network isn't exactly like the Pentagon's demanding procurement specifications for claw hammers.

Meeks out...