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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Will delays to LTE help or hinder VoLTE?

While we've seen a lot of noise about LTE "committments" and assorted trials and early rollouts, I remain unconvinced that we'll see much adoption before 2013, or for truly mobile devices (ie phone-type products) before 2015.

Given the huge diversity frequency bands, the need for extensive work on cost-optimisation and performance-tuning of silicon, as well as the need for broad deployment both outdoor and in, the probability of LTE powering "primary mobile telephony" before mid-decade seems slim, especially for mid-tier devices needed to get hundreds of millions or billions converted from 2G/3G.

What I'm uncertain about is whether this, ultimately, helps or harms the case for mobile IMS and solutions like VoLTE. On one hand, it allows the technology to mature and equipment prices to fall. But on the other hand, it gives huge opportunity for disruptive rivals to become entrenched.

The big risk I see is that something like Skype, Google Voice - or perhaps a still-unlaunched FacePhone, iTalk or OviVoIP - performs a classic "move from an adjacent market" before IMS-VoLTE becomes a real option.

Thinking through the usual pattern of IP-style application disruption, I'd expect to see something "low quality and niche" turn into "good enough" and then morph into "de facto standard".... rather than have some new and bulletproof "official standard" parachuted onto a willing audience in a single swoop.

One thing is certain - you can bet that people on the small new Nordic LTE networks are *already* playing with Skype. You can bet that someone loads up Google Voice on Day 1 of Verizon's LTE launch. DoCoMo might be a special case, but let's see how that goes at the time.

Yes, there will be problems. It probably won't do decent roaming, or properly handle emergency calls, will have poor SMS integration and may well drop at network handovers. But if it's got some other way of introducing "coolness" and virality, people won't care.

To me, this suggests that the IMS-VoLTE guys need to find ways to get their solution out "in beta" immediately, or at least in the next 6-12 months. Ideally with some "cool hooks" as well. Doesn't matter if it's a cludge. Doesn't matter if it doesn't have IMS-based QoS or even use all the core bits of IMS like HSS. Run it off a spreadsheet if you need to. Hell, maybe just rebadge a standard SIP client as "Pre-VoLTE" or something, and leave the proper thing to the version 3 update. Full interoperability can wait too.

In other words... I think there has to be operator-branded, imperfect VoIP (with features to make up for it) ready to go on LTE devices from launch. Might be "over the top" across operator brands, or "through the middle" from the network owner. Whether to extend it down to HSPA devices as well is a more tricky decision, but one I'd probably recommend as well.

But the bottom line is to try to get as many of early LTE adopters on board ASAP, gain experience, pick off the all-important social influencers and communications "hubs", open up some APIs for developers - and then use the advantages of being a standard as a differentiator later.

Repeating the classic telco mistake of going for interoperability first, finding the politically-expedient lowest common denominator, being a "late follower" in terms of service launch, risks being yet another failure to learn from experience.

As a central planning scenario, VoLTE advocates - until we get to mid-tier LTE phones with native VoLTE clients, expect 100% of LTE users to have already made a VoIP call with a 3rd party solution before yours. So, how will you get them to switch?


Steve said...

I think your comments re-iterate the need for VoLGA.

VoLGA turns an operator’s existing mobile voice service into a VoIP service for LTE.

VoLGA is available today (multiple vendors, multiple demos), it provides a complete voice feature set, it’s low-cost, and it doesn’t run ‘off a spreadsheet’. It uses all the same OSS/BSS in place today.

VoLGA is way beyond ‘good enough’.

Dean Bubley said...


Agreed - although possibly the best approach is something like VoLGA embedded inside something new/cool and Web 2.0-esque, rather than standalone.


Anonymous said...

Why should operators really do this anyway? LTE was originally supposed to be a data network only. Sure some operators say they need voice and sms on LTE ... but it is not clear why. Is the point that we expect 2g and 3G networks to be switched off?

Dean Bubley said...

Anonymous - I think LTE is intended as an "all-IP for everything" network, not just a data network.

More pragmatically, reasons for needing a voice solution on LTE include:

- some operators may be LTE-only & not have 2G/3G unless they do MVNO deals
- for phone-type devices (eg smartphones, tablets), using LTE for data & 2G/3G for voice would mean running 2 radios simultaneously & impact battery life etc.
- there are cool new services you can do with VoIP that you can't do with circuit voice
- you need SMS for many operator IT systems (eg configuration, roaming partners, advice-of-charge for data etc)


John. said...

Yeah operators get with the 2.0 program, you can run lawful intercept off a spreadsheet, never mind that old fogey that dies because the emergency services can't get to him, he probably only had a 2G handset anyway, what a loser! Ditch that _boring_ regulatory department and get with the program, the future is no-standard, disparate and un-connected, just like communication should be. 999? twitter your heart attack you fool.

John. said...

Oh and by the way, have you seen the hot bird on the Volga website, those IMS lamers haven't got anything like that kind of talent.

Dean Bubley said...

Thanks John, I wondered if this post would provoke that type of response from the narrow-minded dinosaur brigade.

There is still a narrow segment of the telecom industry that equates the word "voice" with the word "telephony".

That is what I am railing against here - the idea that every type of product or service involving human speech is the same thing.

There are in fact thousands of services, products and applications that are based on voice, yet which are not "telephony".

Yes, even if the microphone/speaker happen to be embedded in a device formerly known as a telephone.

Sure, if something is positioned and marketed as a VoIP "primary phone service", then yes it should be subject to broadly the same regulations as a circuit "primary phone service".

I'm saying that waiting for that, on LTE, will take too long. You need *something* to start building up a user base, *before* evolving a full telephony service later,

So if you use VoIP to create... oh, let's think for a second... a distributed karaoke service, or geo-tagged voice-based restaurant reviews, or a corporate training & compliance platform... or even an *Internet-style, best-effort VoIP/IM service* (where have I heard that before?) then you have a chance to be in the game.

I'm pretty sure your marketing and legal teams can come up with a clever way of saying "Mobile karaoke does not support 911 / 999 calls", don't you?


Chris Simcoe said...

Unfortunately in the real world the people that provide a device and a radio network cannot ignore regulatory requirements (even if regulation would be unclear in this situation) if they package a voice connectivity client with the device. If it is only for gaming, streaming, karaoke, voice enabled augmented reality conferencing with skinnable visual and audible environments then probably not an issue. Also, if the end user has to download and install a client themselves from another party then they know what they are doing and again probably not an issue. But unfortunately if the network/device provide starts to package a software widget that allows connectivity through to the old stuff run by the dinosaur brigade then that is where the regulators start to really take note.
The same technical impelementation will result in different obligations depending on who provided what.
Key desgin principle here is to make sure it doesn't look like a phone or just make sure your software widget has a compliant solution for emergency calling without IMS etc. Definitely a possibility.

John. said...

Thanks Chris for making the point far less facetiously than I did ;-)

I just don't think it is all that realistic that a LTE telephony service can be offered in a way that will not get regulators interested, this means that the operator has to plan a service with all of the regulatory complexity included from the beginning or face ripping it all out and starting from scratch in the future (or trying to bolt this functionality on later). I am sure there are services that can get away with completely ad-hoc implementation of their voice requirements but let's face it, bog standard telephony is the one thing that an operator is going to want to get going first.

I reckon it's your thinking that's dinosaur-like Dean, the rest of us are trying to move away from monolithic incompatible services. Come join us in our new IMS Utopia ;-) (sometime around 2028 or so, we should have got it right by then).

Dean Bubley said...

Chris, John

Do we actually know that for a fact?

That regulators view any type of 'out of the box' voice capability as functionally / legally equivalent to a phone?

Or is that just a convenient get-out and excuse to delay, leaving the field open to "two guys and a karoake machine"?

And if so, has anyone tried to challenge it, or even just gently suggest to regulators & security authorities that it might be a bit overzealous?

Because surely it's already possible to use browser, widget frameworks etc for voice apps today. Even more so for HTML5 browsers. Or send voice messages as email attachments, or steganographically encoded in images.

Chris, that also suggests that operators are fine if they provide apps downloadable by other access customers. So an Orange customer could put Jajah on the device without Telefonica having to get worried?

John "let's face it, bog standard telephony is the one thing that an operator is going to want to get going first." Not necessarily, if it's running on a competitor's network or the Internet at large. eg - if a VodaVoIP app came from the Voda360 store on a Teliasonera LTE Android, would that be OK?