Interactive Week - October 19, 2000

Universal Access Does The 'Dirty Work'

Circuit provisioning lacks glamour, promises payoffs for Internet service providers

By Rebecca Wetzel, 7:43 AM PT

For Internet service providers, provisioning circuits is akin to beating yourself over the head with a hammer: It feels good when you stop.

Unfortunately, Internet service pro viders can't stop. To stay in business, they have had to endure the pain of trying to get circuits where needed, when needed. Even ISPs nesting inside phone companies can't escape, because no single network can serve every nook and cranny of every coverage area.

Finally, there's a company willing to tackle circuit provisioning and management. Universal Access ( — whose founders, Bob Pommer and Patrick Schutt, experienced provisioning headaches firsthand when working at Teleport — decided to take on the job.

"The world doesn't need another network, it needs someone who takes all the networks out there and makes them into a single network, and that's us," says Bob Fischer, director of strategic marketing at Universal Access. "We're doing the work that no one else wants to do. It's not the sexy stuff. It's doing the dirty work — the circuit-by-circuit provisioning. No one wants to do off-net provisioning. It's like hazardous-waste removal."

The service hinges on the Universal Information Exchange (UIX), a database of network provider databases that include information such as pricing, availability and the footprint providers have. By buying into Universal Access, carriers can use the database to determine where and how they can fan out into a certain area and, more importantly, if they should.

Unique service
Universal Access claims to be the only service today that delivers end-to-end, multiple-carrier network connections to ISPs. Greg Mycio, an analyst at New Paradigm Resources Group, says that claim is valid.

"We must be at the inception of something new here, because it makes so much sense. It makes you wonder why no one has done this before," Mycio says. "We're seeing an increasingly confused environment, with all of the CLECs [competitive local exchange carriers] and their networks, and all the ISPs and their networks. Instead of negotiating agreements across many carriers, it makes sense to get someone else to do it."

Mycio predicts that others will jump into the business, but he believes that emulating Universal Access won't be easy. "The complexity of what they're doing is impressive. It can't be an easy thing to build all of the databases and the expertise required to enter this business," he says.

Ron Kaplan, an analyst at International Data Corp., agrees. "I think they will have a few other competitors in the next several years, but I don't see this as a big market opportunity for others, because there are serious barriers to entry in compiling the database and earning the trust of many carriers," Kaplan says.

So who are the primary beneficiaries? Predicts Mycio: "Their biggest impact will be on small to medium-sized ISPs. [Universal Access] can help them ramp up on a wide scale quickly."

Some of Universal Access' initial customers, however, are not small fry. They include the likes of BCE Nexxia and Broadwing. Even big fish have the occasional need for off-net provisioning help and, according to Kaplan, Universal Access is in a good position to provide that help. "It is difficult for carriers to go to their competitors to extend their reach," he says. "Universal Access is a customer as well as a supplier, so they will get better and faster service, and it's not a competitor vs. competitor situation."

Neutral territory
But it's not just circuit provisioning and the consolidation of multiple carriers' circuits onto a single bill that Universal Access provides — it also manages the circuits that it provisions, which can mitigate finger-pointing.

"We set up an advocacy representative to work with each client," Fischer says. "The advocate is dedicated, so the client doesn't have to educate a new person about issues every time they call. If there's trouble, the advocacy representative acts as an ombudsman to help escalate issues up through the organization to get things working."

Universal Access considers itself vendor-neutral, favoring no carrier over another.

"We like to consider ourselves the Sabre [Group] system of network deployment," says Universal Access' vice president for corporate communications Randy Pitzer, comparing the UIX to the system that coordinates travel schedules from every airline. Carrying the analogy one step further, Universal Access actually allows network providers to conduct this business and provision the service over the Web, just like Sabre offers

Look to Universal Access to provide yet another type of service in the future — the provisioning and management of multiple carriers in vendor-neutral colocation facilities. The company currently physically connects networks together at its own interconnection sites, called Universal Transport Exchanges (UTX). These capabilities are a natural fit with vendor-neutral colocation facilities, which provide real estate for such purposes as Web and application hosting, and storage-area networks.

Universal Access expects to have 15 UTX centers by the end of the year.

A marriage of Universal Access' services and those of vendor-neutral colocation facilities is in the cards, Fischer says.

Rebecca Wetzel is an analyst, consultant and writer. She can be reached at