The rush to increase the speed of data networking for enterprises in Hong Kong is set to heat up as AT&T joins the tide of local and international communications carriers offering services based on multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) technology in Asia. AT&T's MPLS initiative is part of the company's recently unveiled enterprise VPN (virtual private network) services, which targets multinational companies and large enterprises operating in the region. AT&T Hong Kong general manager Kevin Ng said: 'We plan to aggressively compete in the emerging MPLS market in the Asia-Pacific.' He said the company's MPLS drive would start in the SAR, Singapore, Tokyo and Sydney in the second quarter of this year. AT&T had planned its US$300 million global network expansion to support the technology, which works alongside existing routing technologies to provide high-speed data forwarding between corporate networks as well as reservation of bandwidth for network applications with various quality of service requirements, he said. The company has run a core network backbone on MPLS before communications carriers such as Pacific Century CyberWorks subsidiary Beyond the Network and Bell Canada-owned Teleglobe, both of which have recently launched MPLS-based services in Greater China. MPLS is a networking technology that evolved from previous technologies such as Cisco's tag switching, IBM's Aris and Toshiba's cell-switched router. As a standards-based technology, MPLS aims to speed up network traffic flow and make it easier to manage. The technology involves setting up a path for a given sequence of data packets, identified by a label put in each packet, saving the time needed for a router to look up the address of the next network node to forward the packet to. The technology is called multiprotocol because it works with the Internet protocol (IP), asynchronous transport mode and frame relay network protocols. With reference to the standard open-systems interconnection model for a network, MPLS aims to allow most data packets to be forwarded at the layer 2, or switching, level rather than at the layer 3, or routing, level. In addition to moving traffic faster, it makes it easy to manage a network for quality of service - a setup that allows service providers to carry different mixtures of data and voice traffic at guaranteed levels of performance. Those features have enabled enterprise customers of AT&T's global managed data network services to define the bandwidth and traffic engineering requirements by application. 'MPLS creates application awareness within the customer network, helping to ensure delivery of higher-priority traffic ahead of lower-priority traffic while providing a minimum bandwidth per class. 'AT&T is responding to the needs of businesses that want to reduce the complexity, challenges and risks of managing their own enterprise networks,' Mr Ng said. AT&T's new enterprise VPN services allow the communications giant to act as a one-stop shop, assisting enterprise customers to build and manage their VPN. The customers can also choose to take on more of the network management responsibility. The service portfolio covers all aspects from implementation to operation of a VPN, including connection, customer premises equipment, availability, security monitoring and service-level agreements. To make managed services more widely available, AT&T has recently been enhancing and extending its global network. By the end of this year, the company will have 850 network points of presence across 60 countries. This network consists of the global network acquired from IBM in 1998 and the assets being returned to AT&T via the dissolution of its Concert venture with British Telecom, as well as AT&T's investments in Canada, Latin America, the Alestra Mexico venture and Shanghai Symphony Telecom. Robin Young, senior vice-president at AT&T's business managed services unit, said: 'Whether a company wants to establish a new network, expand its existing network to include international operations, use multiple networking technologies to connect with its partners or address various users, AT&T has the service building blocks to help.' In the Asia-Pacific, AT&T has its headquarters in Hong Kong and operations in 13 countries. The company is a major provider of high-speed bandwidth for Chinese Internet service providers (ISPs) to access the global network of computers. Its business unit provides network connection, managed data network services, network integration and outsourcing, as well as call-centre services to multinational companies, small and medium-sized enterprises, and individual corporate Internet users. AT&T, however, faces stiff competition from the likes of Beyond the Network and Teleglobe, which announced their MPLS-based enterprise services last month. Beyond the Network, an Internet backbone provider launched by CyberWorks last year, is offering an MLPSVPN.net service through its ISP customers and partners in Greater China, India, North America and Europe. Through the service, it provides ISPs and communications carriers the means to sell interna tional VPN circuits without the burden of deploying an international backbone on their own. Teleglobe, meanwhile, signed an agreement with China Telecom last month, making it the first global carrier to establish an IP-based VPN interconnection with the mainland. By connecting China Telecom's and Teleglobe's MPLS-based IP networks, both service providers now offer an array of IP-based VPN services to their enterprise customers on a global scale.