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Friday, October 12, 2012

Essential reading for ITU World attendees: Ubiquity is EARNED not ASSUMED

I've written before about the “Death of Ubiquity”.

In the run-up to next week’s ITU World summit in Dubai, where I’m on two panels on ecosystems & future service platforms, I thought it was a theme worth revisiting. I’ve also just spent two days at the VoLTE andWebRTC joint events in Paris, which has given me further food for thought.

Many operators, industry associations and vendors refer to the “ubiquity” of the PSTN, and the universal “reachability” of E164 telephone numbers. This is also sometimes linked to the history of universal availability of emergency calling as well. This ubiquitous nature is taken to be, unarguably, a benefit, and something to be maintained at all costs.

I’ve identified three important implicit assumptions that don’t bear scrutiny:
1) The assumption that the phone call – and phone number – will remain our primary – and ubiquitous - means of communication in the future
2) That IP-based versions of those services (generally IMS-based) are somehow “entitled” to ride on the coat-tails of their ubiquitous circuit-based predecessors, and will also inevitably become ubiquitous. 
3) That the classical model of each telecom company owning its own (commodity) switches and applications, and interoperating/federating them, will remain central in future

In a week in which we learned that Facebook has passed a billion users, yet Verizon has pushed back commercial VoLTE rollout to 2014, there is clearly a reality-check needed about what will be “ubiquitous” and when.

Voice is more than just phone calls

Let’s start with the phone call. As Martin Geddes and I point out in our Future of Voice workshops** , it was a pretty decent idea 100 years ago – but it really isn’t a great reflection of how we’d ideally like to communicate in spoken form. It’s interruptive, rather unnatural and suffers from what is termed the “Hegemony of the Caller”. It’s fine for certain types of interaction, but looking increasingly poor for others – which is why many people now pre-schedule calls, or “escalate” from IM. (It also has numerous other limitations which I can discuss on request). We’re seeing the emergence of new forms of voice communication (eg ambient voice or app-embedded communications such as in-game chat). Some markets like the UK have now gone past “peak telephony”, with minutes-of-use falling as we discover other mechanisms that work better for certain functions.

**(a few spaces left for Oct 23-24 in London - sign up now!)

That said, I don’t expect the phone call to disappear quickly or entirely (although revenues will). What is less certain is whether the phone number will endure. I’m increasingly irritated that web-based forms expect me to enter a phone number, when often I’d rather be contacted by the service of my choosing such as Skype (or not at all by voice). As technologies like WebRTC start to turn voice communications into a function of certain websites or apps, rather than just a service, we’ll have ever more voice interactions that don’t need a numerical identifier attached to a subscription or SIM card.

Cut the number?

I don’t think it’s feasible yet, but I’d quite like to “cut the number” when I get the chance. I only use the phone for a few functions, and my call minutes diminish year on year, despite getting more in my mobile or fixed broadband allowance. It’s a hassle having to port the mobile number whenever I churn, as it’s linked to my account/SIM.

Overall I think that numbers could still remain quite useful – but only if they can be totally decoupled from access line and SIM. Increasingly, we will have multiple access providers anyway (especially as we use multiple devices and assorted 3rd-party WiFi connections), so there is ever-less argument to have a single “master” access against which everything is tied. (Separately, I think that WhatsApp and Viber are storing up problems by using the number as an identifier for their services).

But today, phone numbers and phone service are pretty ubiquitous, I agree. They grew up in an era in which there were no alternatives, offered good reliability, extra features like emergency connectivity, and has served us well and gained popularity.


This means that the PSTN has *earned* its ubiquity. Billions of people have seen it to be good, and bought into it. Mobile telephony (and SMS) has gradually usurped fixed telephony and extended its reach.

Fake it till you make it?

The problem is that the IP-based successors of telephony – such as IMS-based VoLTE – have conspicuously not earned their ubiquity yet. Some in the industry are assuming that will happen in the future, but it’s far from obvious. RCS is even further from being “entitled” to ubiquity as it doesn’t have a circuit-switched predecessor as heritage (no, it's not SMS 2.0).

That VoLTE and RCS5 are being combined by some operators undermines this assumed “right” even further – it has not been given a “mandate” by end-users yet, and in the new world of choice it is wrong to pre-suppose that it necessarily will.

Some vendors and the GSMA are taking a stance of “fake it till you make it”, in order to scare recalcitrant operators into adoption against their better judgement. But CFOs don’t want to invest in expensive new systems to service a declining market.

It’s indisputably clear that such operator-based services will not be the only games in town. Indeed, at this point in time, Facebook, Skype and WhatsApp are all more “ubiquitous” than IMS-based services. Even for fixed telephony, IMS-based VoIP solutions compete with simpler NGN-VoIP, 3rd-party services such as Vonage or Skype over “naked DSL”, and of course circuit telephony, which is still leading after 10 years of grindingly-slow substitution.

While many in the industry claim that so-called OTT players are “silos” or “islands”, that is neither accurate nor relevant. In its current state, it is IMS that is the silo, albeit one managed by an arguing committee rather than an individual company. Not to mention that there are many ways by which Internet-based services can and do interoperate – not all the time, or for all examples, but it is a trivial problem where there is demand. (Indeed, email is the best example of an OTT communications application which interoperates perfectly).

Which brings us to a more important issue: it seems abundantly clear that users positively like silos. (Note to regulators/ministers: users are also voters). By and large, people don’t seem to mind that Twitter or Facebook are run by individual companies, and they have plenty of choice if they do mind. 

(Edit: It's also clear that users don't always mind about variable quality or reliability either. But then you already knew that, if you'd witnessed the original uptake of patchy/drop-ridden cellular telephony. I will address the wider issue of QoS, QoE and Net Neutrality in another upcoming post)

No, you can't reach me

This supposed issue of “ubiquitous reachability” is also a chimera. Increasingly, people don’t want it. They want something much more nuanced – easy reach by some people (friends, clients, colleagues), slightly more difficult reach by others (loose contacts, who ought to make a bit of effort, as a filter), and no reach at all by others (eg telesales). Facebook, LinkedIn and various other social networks get this – they build in ideas like “mutual contacts”, contact requests, “how do you know X” functions and so on.

In a busy, networked, multitasking world, we simply don’t want ubiquitous reach.

The problem is that IMS proponents, most vendors & operators, and industry bodies, never bother to think about behavioural psychology, or social anthropology. They develop technical standards based purely on engineering principles, not human ones.

We now have enough advanced technology that we can engineer pretty much any form of communication that we want. So telecoms companies need to start with “want” not “engineer”. It is conspicuous how few IMS, RCS and “ubiquity” advocates mention end-users, or talk about actual behaviour and preferences, rather than how they’d like the world to work.

Ubiquity might occur again in telecoms, but it will be earned, not assumed or mandated.

A federal imperative?

Once you understand that, you understand why the federation approach to telecoms also fails. Not only does it take far too long to evolve – and with too many compromises based on committees – but the underlying economics are bunk as well. Federation of services means that each operator produces, distributes and sells the same commodity product. You can call these “dumb services”. No other industry has 1000+ manufacturers of an undifferentiated commodity with falling prices and zero shipping costs.

Federation may occur after services are successful, and the owners/users think that there is a good rationale. They will use tools like SBCs and other gateways, which are getting ever-cheaper and more powerful. Federation is not a starting point. You can federate from a position of strength, not in anticipation of it, or else you risk creating a brittle, inflexible, slow-moving bureaucracy which is incapable of backtracking when it makes a mistake.

For all their size and power, companies like Facebook and Microsoft and Google have changed direction – often very rapidly – when faced with challenges from their users (or competition authorities). I can’t remember 3GPP or GSMA ever doing the same.

Again, the difference revolves around users. There is no mechanism for end-users to force a change in “ubiquitous” services, especially if they are somehow viewed as special. Regulators can play around with pricing and a few other issues, but cannot easily drive changes in the underlying technology or characteristics of the services themselves, especially in a short timespan.

For Facebook, every change it makes risks key people – ie social “hubs” with lots of friends – abandoning the service and switching allegiance elsewhere, potentially taking hundreds of people with them. It is those individuals, if anyone, who holds the “hegemony” – much like real life, where the most popular and connected people determine success or failure of restaurants or theatres or fashion brands.

There is no path for end-users to petition the 3GPP to change the nature of deep-packet inspection, or the role of SIM cards. For federated services, churning doesn’t help, because there is no competition at the basic layer of service features and capabilities. You have to take what you’re given.

Unsurprisingly, in a world of choice and crowd-sourced product direction, this is not popular any more. Users are rejecting federated services for better, more-tailored and often free/cheap alternatives, delivered via open Internet access and apps. The more egregious moves (eg on privacy and net neutrality) are sometimes ultimately tackled through the ballot box, although the obfuscating noise of politics and lobbying makes that a tricky path - and which of course get conflated with a hundred other non-telecoms issues.

Dial 911!

Emergency calling usually rears its head at this point in the argument, as an example of the “greater good” that customers are only aware of when they really need it. It is used as excuse for continuing the controlled, centralised, federated-telco model.

I think that is a non-sequitur.

I agree that good emergency communications is a must. It also needs a bottom-up rethink. Nobody sensible would suggest being able to call 911 from inside voice chat in World of Warcraft (“Police? My sword’s been stolen”). But nobody sensible would say it’s a bad idea to allow SMS’s to emergency services either, yet 20 years on it’s still not possible in most countries.

We need to start thinking about decoupling emergency comms from the telephone network and look – in the round – at better evolution paths. For $50-100bn, we could probably find a global 5MHz of spectrum, build dedicated networks (high range/low capacity is fine given the loads) and give every person on the planet a cheap cellular emergency keyfob or bracelet. Alternatively, banging together the heads of Microsoft, Google, Apple, Facebook AND some telcos could yield a rich and extensible “Emergency API” that far exceeds today’s voice-only 911.

It shouldn’t be the emergency tail wagging the broader communications dog. In fact, the tail shouldn’t be attached to the dog anyway, solely because of a 100-year old legacy technology and industry structure that is breaking up. Let’s use the ITU event next week to start thinking about imaginative alternatives for the next 100 years more seriously.

So, overall I think it is time to rethink this term “ubiquitous”. What ought to be ubiquitous is the right for the individual to be contacted primarily on their terms, not those of whoever is trying to contact them. If we decide as a group that we still want a lowest-common denominator telephony service in perpetuity, then optimise GSM and CS voice even more, for maximum efficency and lowest cost and power consumption. 

GSM, unlike VoLTE, RCS or IMS, has earned its ubiquity. IMS and VoLTE might succeed and become ubiquitous eventually (RCS certainly won't). But the industry shouldn't assume or pretend that it's inevitable, because it isn't.


Doug said...

What a post – lots to chew on. Here are a couple of thoughs.

I see the ubiquitous voice service as the combination of [potentially] an access means, the E.164 number, and the global routing infrastructure underneath. The sum value of calling any number in the world and having it ring is clearly decreasing overall, and for some (you for example) the value has decreased practically to zero. For others (such as regulators) it is still high.

But for the current market, if it is sold as a phone (versus an iPad, tablet, or dongle) it is assumed to be able to tie into the ubiquitous voice network. And as you point out, we can engineer it in most any way these days – so we get different strategies. MetroPCS goes with VoLTE because they want to farm the CDMA spectrum while TMO USA tries to make best use of UMTS CS; Skype provides access within their community but also Skype-In and Skype-out; Google Talk provides a one number+ service. But the key point here is that they tie into the global E.164 routing infrastructure on the backend. That’s what ubiquitous. So VoLTE doesn’t need to “earn its ubiquity” … its just a technology that is useful in some cases, and part of its usefulness is that it fits in pretty cleanly into the technology refresh direction of voice networks. In other cases, other technologies may produce better business cases.

While 1000+ of manufacturers [operators] of undifferentiated voice is clearly not an optimum state, I haven’t seen the emergence of a small set of disruptive ventures that moves operators off that state – it does seem ripe for an out-sourcing/rollup play. The inertia that keeps from moving to a different operations model is very strong. VoLTE might reduce that barrier somewhat, cloud operation even more so. Have you seen any interesting developments of major operators outsourcing their telephony?
And even with all those operators, the general focus is in reducing costs. For now, those slow moving standards organizations might as well be part of the operators’ Supply Chain Network to commoditize products in order to drive down prices. You don’t get multiple suppliers competing for providing Skype technology network equipment – all you get is Microsoft. And SCN hates that type of situation. ( I remember resonating with one talk a couple years back that described Regulatory Management and Vendor Management as the two key strengths of US operators). Maybe you get enough flexibility and new services to go with a non-standard technology, but that typically isn’t at the top of SCN’s playbook.

Regulatory mandates like E911 (and LI) will still be there independent of the technology deployed. One tricky problem with E911 is its expected ubiquity. Send an SMS to E911 to say your house is on fire and if the PSAP doesn’t support SMS then the fire truck never arrives. Thus essentially all PSAPs need to be updated before you start publicizing E911 SMS. That means 10s of thousands of local decisions to invest in new PSAP equipment all lining up – you get stuck on a local optimum of voice call+location and never reach any new services unless it is mandated by the government.

And that Is on top of any bottoms-up rethink by creating an overlay E911 system in prime spectrum with 7 Billion keyfobs manufactured and delivered. What a blessing to the existing operators who probably would love to sunset their E911 mandates. But I think you are off by at least an order of magnitude on cost (and upkeep) of such a system. It is much more palatable for governments to mandate and place the cost on some other party.

Thus I think that “Has VoLTE earned its ubiquity?” – is the wrong question to ask. The right question is whether a deployment of VoLTE technology provides the best business case compared to other options. (And then go out and deploy VoLTE or one of the alternatives).

Hamish said...

"No other industry has 1000+ manufacturers of an undifferentiated commodity with falling prices and zero shipping costs."

I think email fits into that category.