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Wednesday, August 07, 2013

WebRTC & carrier WiFi: a similar story of "desirable fragmentation" for telcos

I cover two main areas of technology at the moment, accounting for about about 80-90% of my work:
  •  Personal communications (voice, messaging, video, WebRTC, VoLTE, RCS etc)
  •  Wireless networks (LTE, WiFi, policy management, regulation, Net neutrality, EPC, spectrum etc)
In particular, I've recently done a lot of work on WebRTC including various conferences and my research report/updates.  Quite a lot of emphasis goes on the role that WebRTC may have within telecom operators, and the supporting tools such as SIP gateways needed to enable it. I also spend a lot of time thinking and writing about carrier WiFi, and the implausibility of many of the integrated WiFi/cellular models and standards, that many vendors have been pitching.

I've realised an important similarity between WebRTC and WiFi from the viewpoint of telcos:

Operators should pursue multiple strategies, in different parts of the organisation, for exploiting both WebRTC & WiFi - with the "official" 3GPP/GSMA view of the world being only one of those approaches.

So, WebRTC should not just be confined to the domain of telcos' Labs or IMS/core-network groups. It should independently be addressed within the enterprise team, telco-OTT initiatives, product/portfolio management, consumer digital services, IPTV, customer support, developer programme, incubator and other units as well. They should make pragmatic, rapid decisions based on whatever architecture, partner and vendor choices make sense in the near-to-medium term. 

They should not wait for an "official" strategy based around extending an IMS core to WebRTC, as this will likely take upwards of a year to get properly tested and launched, and any further extensions/new services will get mired in the usual telco bureaucracy. By all means, if the core IMS/WebRTC platform works (eventually) then consider porting all the new stuff across to it.

But it is critical for, say, the enterprise UC or conferencing propositions to start jumping onto WebRTC immediately, and not wait. They should look at partnering with existing WebRTC leaders that can offer hosted or white-label services, for example. Consumer-grade bundles should start integrating WebRTC features or applications as soon as they are available. Larger operators might want to follow Telefonica's lead with Tokbox, and acquire specialists that are offering developer platforms for WebRTC.

The key thing is speed - and avoidance of early lock-in to technical architectures like IMS. For some use cases, IMS/WebRTC might be the right approach in the medium term, or maybe longer (for example, when NFV/virtualisation brings down costs). But each application will need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis when it comes to WebRTC - it's far too early for one (as-yet-unproven) approach to be considered a default across the whole telco universe.

But the interesting thing is that this fragmented technical/commercial approach is also true of WiFi in telcos. There is an "official" line (in fact, two or three variants) about using technologies like ANDSF, Hotspot 2.0, IFOM etc, and creating some form of "seamless" integration with the cellular network. But there are also many, many other approaches to WiFi for network operators as well.

By all means, let the networks group within the operator "get on with it", putting WiFi into small-cells, trying to integrate with the EPC and policy infrastructure. But that shouldn't mean that other parts of the telco - enterprise, consumer marketing, M2M, digital services, roaming, government services, a standalone WiFi unit and so on - should be forced into the same technological decisions and timelines. They should make case-by-case decisions about their desired segments - and more importantly, the behaviour and characteristics of the customer base.

For example, while the 3G/4G network group might desire "offload" as the main use-case for WiFi, reducing the need for cell-splitting, backhaul upgrades or even spectrum purchase - the enterprise group or public WiFi group may have other thoughts. They may wish to deploy "carrier neutral" WiFi in a shopping mall or airport or office, where the client (the venue-owner) wants to provide equal services to all visitors and employees, irrespective of their underlying cellular provider. In many such cases, WiFi will be used in non-cellular devices such as PCs and tablets anyway, so having full network integration is pointless.

It may well also be that some teams within operators want to design new products around WiFi that are totally orthogonal to the 3GPP's views on policy-management and "seamless" access. They may be offering advertising services on a log-on splash screen, for example - actually monetising the "seam" rather than pretending it's an impediment. They may be finding value in analytics (eg where someone walked inside a store), ancillary functions like indoor location APIs, or a hundred other models.

Operators may well also want to partner in innovative ways around WiFi that are outside of the standards-based myopia - especially if they are pursuing wholesale or neutral-host models. Or they might just want to tactically resell (or bundle for free) a particular WiFi provider's services, without complex integration or roaming features. 

We may see application-driven WiFi - perhaps an operator's Telco-OTT VoIP service (based on WebRTC, obviously), which uses free non-carrier WiFi wherever possible, or offers easy/discounted payment along the same lines as Skype/Boingo. We may even see carriers partnering with companies like Google, which are developing their own WiFi footprint.

In other words, for both WebRTC and WiFi, carriers should not employ a one-size-fits-all mentality. There are multiple technology approaches, which fit better with specific commercial requirements for different use-cases. 

Operators should avoid the traditional mistake of assuming that the "official" architecture and standards are somehow special or better than more pragmatic alternatives. Those standards have to prove themselves in the market, not just be assumed as being a desirable end-point. They might well turn out to be in the end - but that needs to be earned and not assumed. In the meantime, operators should experiment with everything available - allowing diversity across their different business units.

This goes beyond WebRTC and WiFi as well. The rise in virtualisation, NFV and cloud platforms will further reduce the role of some technology standards in other domains in future. Telcos will reduce their reliance on across-the-board platforms in many cases, building/reselling services based on individual use-cases, rather than constraining them to specific technical architectures. I'll write more about this another time, but in general it maps on to my  view that "ubiquity is dead" in telecoms.