Cisco Picks up Where Starent Left off

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Cisco on Tuesday will show just how serious it is about mobile data with the introduction of its first product derived from its Starent acquisition, the ASR 5000.

The new platform for delivering mobile services, which is based on the Starent ST40, is being announced less than a week before the Mobile World Congress, one of the biggest wireless conventions in the world. Cisco will also use the conference to demonstrate the platform, which is available now.

As mobility becomes a key part of data services for enterprises and consumers, equipment providers are beefing up infrastructure for delivering mobile services consistently and profitably. Reaching a subscriber who may be moving or have a thin connection presents special challenges, as well as opportunities to target content to them. Cisco acquired Starent last year for about US$2.9 billion as part of its bid to lead in this area.

The ASR 5000 is a rebranded ST40 but also incorporates the Cisco Unified Reporting System, which brings together various pieces of information about subscribers and networks for easy access by administrators, said John Morgan, a senior manager of solutions marketing who joined Cisco from Starent. It's the first of many new elements that Cisco intends to incorporate into the platform over time, Morgan said.

The device combines several network components that are used to connect subscribers to the Internet and mobile data services. In addition, it lets the mobile operator use information about subscribers' service plans, locations, activities and current network connections to personalize applications and make them run better. The ASR 5000 will also tie mobile services into a variety of other capabilities on Cisco networks, such as the company's Medianet concept, designed to adapt multimedia content for different devices and connections.

The platform's capabilities, in turn, could open the door to more personalized advertising and make mobile services more attractive to deliver, Morgan said.

For example, a mobile operator could offer a service that blocks objectionable content on a subscriber's phone when their child is using it. When the user moves from a 3G (third-generation) to a faster 4G network or Wi-Fi, the system could automatically adjust settings so that a video continues seamlessly and looks good all the way through, Morgan said. The carrier could also deliver ads based on the subscriber's location and recent browsing activity.

Though the ASR 5000 is mostly just a rebranding of the ST40, the fact that it's available just weeks after the acquisition closed signals Cisco is serious, said analyst Peter Jarich of Current Analysis.

"They're doing something, and they're doing it quickly," Jarich said.

Cisco already provides some functions of the new platform on its 7600 series router, which has been a mainstay of its routing lineup for the edges of carrier networks. This puts Cisco in an interesting position because the ASR 5000 is not a traditional router but a specialized services platform, said Jarich. Cisco offers both approaches, he said. The array of major competitors to Cisco includes Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson. Carrier router archrival Juniper Networks may introduce similar capabilities, Jarich believes.

At the same time, it means Cisco is expanding its ASR line, which began with the ASR 1000 and 9000 edge routers, with a device that is not a classic router, Jarich said.

"The ASR family isn't so much about routing as it is (about) services," Jarich said.

Subscribers will probably start to see the benefits of technology like the ASR 5000 next year, following testing and implementation, Jarich believes. The rollout of 4G LTE (Long-Term Evolution) networks will give carriers a chance to kick off the next generation of offerings, he said.

"Ultimately, the trend is going to be more personalized services," Jarich said. That should mean more choices for users, including options that are more closely tuned to their individual needs. Better mechanisms for getting consumers to pay for those services in some form will help to make those new options flourish, he said.

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