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Friday, October 11, 2013

For telcos, IMS integration should only be a small % of WebRTC effort

I've got numerous presentations and conferences coming up over the next couple of months, especially in Europe & SE Asia. Most of these touch on the themes of voice, WebRTC, unified communications and related areas. As a result, I've been giving some thought to my current views on WebRTC and its evolution so far in 2013 and critical angles for development in 2014 - especially where it intersects with the telecom service provider space.

My current thinking is that for many operators, their pace and breadth of innovation around WebRTC is too slow - and often (and ironically) confined to some of the more conservative-minded teams.

I don't want to pre-empt everything in my forthcoming presentations (and the new update for my WebRTC report subscribers) but there is one clear and critical message:

IMS interworking should account for no more than 30% of a telco's overall effort or investment into WebRTC. Further, the IMS/core network group MUST NOT have centralised control over a carrier's overall WebRTC strategy

For those operators that are pursuing IMS, either in fixed or mobile domains, yes it will be important to understand how to leverage WebRTC. It can potentially extend operator-branded VoIP to devices without apps or native support, for example - using a standard browser instead of a softphone or other dedicated client. 

This might be a help for VoLTE, by allowing users to use the same number/identity on (paradoxically) non-LTE devices such as WiFi tablets. It might reduce reliance on the still-clunky SR-VCC standard for switching from VoLTE to 2G/3G circuit telephony at the edge of coverage, if WiFi is available, too. Or allow innovation such as a "second telephony line", or even somehow enable non-telephony voice formats hook into an IMS platform. I'm not convinced this is the best way of doing any of this, and I'm also certain that not every operator will implement IMS anyway, but for those that do, WebRTC offers a way of making a legacy architecture a bit more 21st-century ready.

(WebRTC might also eventually help reduce the difficulty of rolling out RCS to some devices too - although the 17 or 26 other critical problems associated with that standard mean that it still has no chance of success).

But the important factor here is that even looking optimistically at IMS, it will not be the basis for the bulk of new services and revenue streams for operators. It has a role for some SPs in managing a more graceful decline of telephony from its historic peak, by lowing the cost base and maybe adding a couple of extra features. This has been seen with the fixed PSTN moving to NGN/IMS VoIP to replace creaky 30yr-old switches, and will likely be replicated in mobile with VoLTE. (Although here, the industry has been forced into VoIP by LTE not supporting CS voice, even though mobile CS infrastructure is often new and cost-optimised).

Either way, WebRTC-enabling VoLTE or other IMS services will not occur at "web speed". Although we're seeing a ton of gateway solutions emerge from all the big vendors (ALU, Ericsson, Genband, Huawei, Oracle etc), that's only part of the puzzle. There's still a ton of work to do around service creation, testing, regulatory compliance, market research, OSS/BSS integration and all the usual telco paraphernalia which extends launch cycles out to years rather than months. WebRTC might simplify development of device-side clients/apps, but it won't short-circuit the internal legal department's process of signing it off.

But most new services that telcos should be focusing on - whether they relate to content, IPTV, next-gen messaging, home automation, telco-OTT, banking, healthcare, corporate UC, videoconferencing and so on - will almost certainly not be anchored in IMS. They will run on separate platforms, often cloud-based, web-based and/or partner-based.

It is critical that all of the various telco business units and teams that are doing service development have their own views and autonomy when it comes to WebRTC. They should all be experimenting and prototyping using whichever tools and platforms make sense. WebRTC responsibility must be decentralised across a telco's portfolio of efforts. They should use 3rd-party APIs and SDKs, work with Internet companies, use pre-standard tools and platforms, create separate identity spaces and so forth. The same is true for internal processes at the operator - BSS/OSS, HR, field force automation, internal communications/collaboration and so on should all be looking at how WebRTC can enhance their activities.

But these activities should happen independently of whatever is going on in IMS, the Labs & the Core Network. The peripheral innovative business units must "distintermediate" their own core network if necessary - and be must given C-level "air support" when they do it. If they don't, they will lose relevance and opportunity, waiting for the slowly-grinding wheels of IMS/WebRTC integration to catch up. Which they probably won't for some time, if ever.

If and when the telco's IMS/WebRTC platform is equal to other choices in terms of flexibility, performance and planned future evolution speed, it should be considered for migration. But not before - it is not a "special flower" from the perspective of the group thinking about enterprise videoconferencing, or turning next-gen music streaming into karaoke, or considering adding realtime sensor data-collection to home-automation propositions.

The bottom line is that for telcos, WebRTC is a lot more important for IMS, than IMS is important for WebRTC. By all means pursue the extension of VoLTE or whatever - but telco CTOs (and, frankly CEOs and CFOs) must make absolutely certain that the bulk of WebRTC initiatives and investment are made outside of the stifling conservatism of the IMS mindset.


Murat said...

Hi, Dean,

Thank you for your insightful article.
I wonder, what's your opinion on the mobile devices' battery drain caused by the WebRTC's need to keep a session alive?
Is there any hope for any kind of "push-to-WebRTC" technology to be implemented in order to solve this problem?

Dean Bubley said...


Good question. I'd say that in the short term, there's probably going to have to be a software solution based around better APIs/SDKs used to embed WebRTC into mobile apps.

This is another reason why I have doubts about "pure" browser-based WebRTC on mobile devices, rather than something going via a developer-centric cloud like Tokbox.

In the longer term, I'd expect to see WebRTC supported natively in some of the OS's, where there will probably be some more active power management. May also be something for the IETF to consider in future iterations of the WebRTC/RTCWeb drafts.


Jimmy CHOW said...

Hi Dean, thanks for the insight sharing. The most important for WebRTC integrated with IMS, I think it's not the technical issues, the signalling for the connection, the addressing, the transcodec, etc. all can be solved without too much efforts. BUT the most important issue is why the telcos will invest on it ? till now, I don't find the impetus from them to do it as business, they just show they're interesting in it, that's all till now. And it's easy to find the reason, who pay for that or what's the business model.Also I think WebRTC will not be successful if without the cooperation with the telcos. It's really good concepts but not good business to the stakeholders.