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Is OC3 Bandwidth Still a Good Choice?
How to evaluate high bandwidth business telecom services and choose between OC3 over SONET and Carrier Ethernet.

Before there was Ethernet there was SONET. Until just the last year or so, if you wanted high bandwidth voice, video and data transport networking your entry point was OC3 SONET at 155 Mbps. The cost was a small fortune, but if you needed to get your data package across town or across the country instantly and not overnight SONET could get the job done. But what about now? It OC3 bandwidth still the right choice?

Surprisingly, the answer may be yes. Let's take a look at what's available in the way of high bandwidth transport technologies.

SONET as Fiber Optic Bandwidth
SONET or Synchronous Optical NETwork is a fiber optic transmission system based on TDM or Time Division Multiplexing. It's tried and true. Developed by the telephone companies to increase the capacity of their digital trunks beyond the T1 and T3 lines of the T-Carrier system, SONET takes line services from twisted pair copper onto fiber optic strands. Usually, SONET is implemented as a pair of redundant rings with an automatic failover mechanism. If one path fails, the other automatically picks up the traffic within 50 mSec.

The built-in protection and synchronised TDM channels make SONET ideal for carrier grade digitized telephone call trunking. But SONET can also transport packetized data including voice, video and data. One use of SONET fiber optic circuits is to transport DS1 signals for T1 lines and DS3 signals for T3 lines over long distances. They can be split off or demultiplexed at the drop off destination. If you have a long haul T1 line, chances are that it is carried at least part of the way on fiber optic channels even though your termination is twisted pair copper.

The SONET family of line rates spans OC-1 at 52 Mbps on up to OC-768 at 40 Gbps. But in practice, only a few optical carrier levels are standard and readily available. These are OC-3 at 155 Mbps, OC-12 at 622 Mbps, OC-48 at 2.5 Gbps, OC -192 at 10 Gbps and OC-768 at 40 Gbps. The higher speed services are typically used as carrier backbones and may not be available to business users.

Carrier Ethernet - The New Guy in Town
So, what competes with SONET? Carrier Ethernet, also known as Metro Ethernet, is the new kid on the block. Ethernet WAN or Wide Area Networks are intended to transport packets and don't present the channelization of SONET services. To the end user this fine point may be irrelevant. Both SONET and Ethernet usually connect through a specialized router interface designed for the particular line technology being used.

Standard Ethernet WAN services mirror the standard Ethernet LAN speeds of 10 Mbps, 100 Mbps, 1 Gbps and 10 Gbps. But some carriers, such as XO Communications, offer incrementally finer Ethernet bandwidths that include 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 200, 300, 400, or 500 Mbps.

Carrier Ethernet's big selling points are it's standard Ethernet interface and often dramatically lower costs. The cost advantage is more due to aggressive marketing by competitive carriers than any inherent cost advantage of the technology. But as a user, you can benefit by taking the best deal that is available for the level of service you need. In some cases, that can amount to thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars per month in lease costs.

Ethernet or SONET? Which Should You Pick?
So, does that mean that Ethernet is always a better deal than SONET? Often, but not always. In some cases, Ethernet service isn't even available, but OC3 services are well established. You should also know that the same competitive cost pressures that have made Ethernet WAN services available at lower costs have also made SONET services much cheaper than they used to be. OC3 is no longer an exotic service suitable for only Internet service providers and the largest corporations. A smaller video production company can easily require OC3 level bandwidth at 155 Mbps or Fast Ethernet at 100 Mbps. OC12 and OC48 are not beyond the reach of larger technology based companies.

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