Tangled Webs

   NTT's OCN - Ask No Questions
Issue 3.02
Mar 06, 1998

Bandwidth For Sale: Cheap

When NTT first announced OCN a little over a year ago details were scarce, ISPs were worried, and users were frustrated. After its rocky start, however, OCN has now evolved into a service that deserves serious consideration for non-critical business use. Details, unfortunately remain scarce.

OCN's selling point is absurdly cheap bandwidth. The OCN Economy service provides a full-time 128kb/s connection to the Internet for Y38,000/month. NTT also offers OCN Standard, which is a 1.5Mb/s pipe for Y350,000/month and OCN Enterprise, which is a whopping 6Mb/s for Y985,000/month. This pricing structure means that consumers can buy bandwidth from NTT at about 1/6 the price ISPs have to pay for it -- a situation Japan's ISPs are none too pleased with.

Comparing price and nominal bandwidth is straightforward, but assessing the quality and reliability of a connection is considerably more complex. Such judgments usually require a solid understanding of the network to which you will be connecting. Perhaps unsurprisingly, NTT doesn't quite see it that way. The bandwidth comes from NTT, and NTT is reliable. What more could one need to know?

None of Your Business

An hour with NTT technical support feels a lot like waking up in the middle of a David Lynch movie. Questions regarding topology, protocols, internal bandwidth, routing hardware and software, the number of subscribers, and even their e-mail servers are answered with "I'm sorry, but that's confidential information." One of the representatives I spoke with at length eventually became quite annoyed at my persistent inquiries into NTTs "private matters."

Fortunately, most of this information can be obtained or deduced from other sources, but what I discovered was hardly confidence inspiring. In the OCN Economy configuration, 24 128k-lines feed into a single router. This router is then connected upstream via a single 128k pipe. This means that NTT can oversell bandwidth by as much as 24:1, which is clearly excessive.

The other concern is that you has no knowledge or control over how the router's other 23 lines are being used. If one of those OCN subscribers decides to put up a porno site, your connection could crawl to a halt. When asked about such a scenari , NTT stated that while such sites are permitted, they are discouraged. No one I spoke to was willing to elaborate on what form this discouragement would take.

As one moves further upstream things become a bit murky, but based on latency, the OCN network probably relies heavily on frame relay. Based on all available technical details, OCN should be slow enough to make you want to get out and push. Oddly, that is simply not the case. Not one OCN user I spoke to had bandwidth complaints. You usually won't get the full 128k, but it seems you can always count on at least 80k or 90k.

I find few things quite as unnerving as watching a system run smoothly when I know it should be just limping along. However, its tough to argue with empirical evidence, and OCN is performing admirably, at least for the moment. I have my doubts as to whether NTT will be able to maintain this level of performance as the number of users increases. NTT claims to be in the process of upgrading the OCN network, but the nature of these upgrades is, of course, confidential.

Ask Us No Questions, We'll Tell You No Lies

Is OCN reliable enough for heavy corporate use? NTT's secrecy and the few technical details I could find would make me wary of a long-term commitment. I know of at least one NTT division that chooses to pay a non-NTT ISP for a 64k feed rather than go with the much cheeper 128k OCN service. However, there is no question that OCN is workable, and at only Y38,000/month it's worth signing up and doing your own testing before making any decisions.

The only clear downside to OCN is that you can't expect much in the way of customer support. When I asked how OCN customers could get the detailed information needed to solve specific problems, I was told "Subscribers can call our support office, and a technician will tell them everything they need to know to fix the problem."

I reminded the technician that for the last 30 minutes he had been steadfastly refusing to answer almost all of my questions. He very politely set me straight. "Well yes, but you're asking about things you don't need to know."

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