Q&A With Cisco's Mike Volpi

Even though his company sells products which can aid Internet-services blocking techniques, Cisco's Mike Volpi, senior vice president of the company's router division, says more competition is better for everyone.

April 20, 2005

7 Min Read
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Is Cisco Systems an arms broker in the potential bandwidth-blocking war between established service providers and new players like Vonage Holdings? During the recent National Cable & Telecommunications Association show in San Francisco, Advanced IP Pipeline editor Paul Kapustka sat down with Mike Volpi, the senior VP and GM of Cisco's routing technology group, to get his thoughts on whether or not technology should be used to stifle open networks (for the record, he says it shouldn't), and what regulators can do to help the U.S. improve its currently sub-par record in the area of broadband deployment.

Advanced IP Pipeline: When you talk to cable customers about things like Voice over IP infrastructure, are they looking for something to solve their problems right now, or more for the future?

Mike Volpi: A little bit of both. There is a competition that occurs between a cable operator and a Bell operating company in terms of speed and pricing of their [Internet] services. A lot of competition has been along the axis of speed -- and with increased speeds, there's more load on the network, so [customers] upgrade both at the edge and the core, and that definitely drives a fair bit of purchases today.

They're also increasingly competing on new applications or services -- VoIP versus classic telephony. When they compete from that angle, that creates opportunity [for Cisco].

The vision we convey to cable operators is that an IP-based infrastructure is a great coverged platform, in that with one IP network you can deliver voice video, and data over the same network infrastructure. You get better efficiences, and [can] invent new applications that blur the boundaries of classic telephony, video and voice.For example, if you look at video telephony, that's actually a combined application of phone and video -- and that's very hard to do on two different networks. There are more examples like that. For the longest time cable operators' core business was analog and digital video to the home, and on the side was this little high-speed Internet business. Now you can see that the heart of the organization that does the high-speed Internet stuff is becoming increasingly very central. They're starting to view that as the transport platform for ultimately all their video delivery and telephony services.

Advanced IP Pipeline: Do they consider that they might have competitors flowing along that same pipe? Most of the cable providers we talked to at the show said they wouldn't try to block independent services, like Vonage.

Volpi: I think the way they look at it is, first competitively -- they want to welcome consumers who will prefer somebody who doesn't block versus somebody who does block. That's very simple.

I also believe that the cable operators understand that if they start doing things like blocking, they will potentially get scrutinzed by the FCC and other regulatory agencies, which they don't want to see happening. So they keep the pipe open to everybody.

I think it's much more constructive. You're going to have to compete with Vonage. The way you compete with Vonage is not by blocking Vonage, but by offering a more compelling service.Advanced IP Pipeline: Are cable operators different than traditional telephony players in that way?

Volpi: I wouldn't say that the traditional telephony guys are in the mode of saying, 'well, we want to proactively block.' They too understand the consequences.

I do think the cable operators come from a more entrepreneurial background, they do take more risk for better or for worse. In the Internet and voice business, they're really the newcomers. And so they realize they have to be a bit more aggressive, and they do that. They are fairly aggressive with service introduction, pricing, and giving more bandwidth to the user. They are deploying technologies that are perhaps not as mature as an ILEC would choose.

Advanced IP Pipeline: Service providers often mention other applications, like BitTorrent, as being harmful to their operations. Does Cisco tell service providers that Cisco can help them block such traffic?

Volpi: The answer is yes. We provide them with tools to manage those types of peer-to-peer applications. Our service control engine, for example, can look into the packets as they flow through, recognize which application they belong to and offer an ability to throttle the amount of bandwidth that that application actually consumes.So if your policy is that you don't want more than 500 Kbps on this pipe of BitTorrent, we can program it. The question of whether that service provider or MSO chooses to implement that type of technology or not, that's up to them. We give them the tools -- let's call it traffic optimization. Some will choose to use them. Others will choose not to do it.

Advanced IP Pipeline: Some of the people we've talked to in the industry say that's what's happening to Vonage, that the service is being throttled down.

Volpi: The difference between BitTorrent and Vonage is an order of magnitude. A Vonage telephone call, at the worst case is about 100 Kbps. For BitTorrent, while you are downloading a movie it can be megabits [per second]. And that's megabits of stuff, continuous for long periods of time.

Vonage is a much different service. It just [uses] too little bandwidth. That's more of a business issue -- that a CLEC doesn't want that traffic on their network, because it takes away revenue from their voice business.

Advanced IP Pipeline: So somebody saying Vonage is causing a technical issue isn't correct?Volpi: I don't believe it's a technical issue. It's a business issue.

Advanced IP Pipeline: Has Cisco stepped up its dealings with Congress and the FCC, to advise them on technical matters?

Volpi: We have stepped it up. We get asked a lot by the FCC and occasionally by Congress to testify and provide our opinions. I think what helps is that our interests are aligned with consumers and businesses. If consumers get more bandwidth at lower price points, and there are more applications, that basically consumes more bits. And we are in the business of providing bits. Because of that alignment with consumers and business users, I think we are seen as a relatively neutral supplier of information.

Advanced IP Pipeline: So what is Cisco's regulatory philosophy?

Volpi: Our guiding light is competition is good, less regulation is good. Prohibiting people from doing stuff is not good. If you're an ILEC, you may think Vonage is a bad thing. We don't do a lot of business with Vonage ourselves, but we think Vonage is a good thing -- it creates competition. And we think that there ought to be as much competition as possible for the consumer to benefit. In turn that poses a lot of difficulty for us -- our products have got to be cheaper, do more for less. But the whole country benefits. We compete, and because of our competition, we make better products.Advanced IP Pipeline: Do you have any signs that such ideas are taking hold with Congress or the FCC?

Volpi: Particularly at the FCC, we're encouraged by what we've seen in the last few years. [But] I will say this: These are very complicated issues with a lot of technical nuances. They're difficult for us to understand and we're in the business. I've got to believe for a regulator, or a congressman or a senator, these are hard things that take a tremendous amount of time for them to understand.

We feel good about the direction it's going in, but for VoIP, for new spectrum for wireless, there are a ton of issues out there that need to be resolved for the benefit of this country. We worry about the state of broadband in the U.S. It's slower, more expensive [than in other nations], and that's not a good thing for the economy, for the consumer. We see a lot of ground-breaking applications now being created [instead] in Finland, Korea, and Japan.

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