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Thursday, September 17, 2015

VoLTE & WiFi-Calling are just excuses for telcos to avoid real voice/video innovation

Five years ago, I started talking about the Future of Voice, and then subsequently started running workshops with Martin Geddes on the topic. At the time, I found it quite hard to find the right people at telcos/service providers to talk to. Few were aware of concepts such as embedded voice/video, new user-interaction models, developer platforms, or a “post-telephony” world where we all had many ways to communicate, choosing the best tool for a given job.

There was no “product manager” for telephony, and nobody with responsibility for communications services innovation. There was no "VP, Voice" - it was just assumed to be an inherent background task owned by everyone and nobody. There might have been folk in the enterprise unit looking at UC and conferencing, international dial people scared of Skype, and a couple of people in the labs wondering what to do about voice on LTE, but that was about it. Oh, and of course at a handful of operators, there was sometimes some hapless soul trying to push RCS, either internally or at GSMA.

Then, about 2-3 years ago, there was a shift. Various people with titles like “Head of Advanced Communications” started popping up, roughly as the tidal wave of smartphones, messenger and VoIP apps, developer platforms and so on started to take off. A few people had heard of WebRTC, some operators were tinkering with their own early “telco-OTT” comms apps (remember T-Mobile Bobsled?), developer tools were being pushed, and there were signs that some actual innovative thinking was taking place. (And a few hapless souls were still pushing RCS, of course).

But in recent months, that glimmer of positivity seems to have dimmed again somewhat. The bulk of telco announcements recently concerning “advanced” communications has been anything but "advanced". It’s just been breathless announcements about VoLTE or WiFi-Calling, as if they actually changed anything. (And, yes, a few hapless souls are still pushing RCS. Although rather fewer – quite a lot of them have finally escaped the Joyn event horizon). See this recent post of mine for an example.

Let’s be clear – VoLTE has four benefits:

  • Offers a solution for 4G-only operators with no 2G/3G or MVNO deal for fallback
  • Allows simultaneous voice & data on 4G, rather than forcing 3G fallback for data during calls
  • Gives faster call setup time (nice, but the sort of minor feature upgrade that would have been quietly introduced in v6.3 for any other voice app)
  • Might eventually help with spectrum refarming. This is equivalent to fixed operators being able to sell big old exchange offices in cities. It allows eventual asset sales / re-use. Eventually.

Beyond that, there’s no new revenue, no change to the basic vanilla 130yr-old format of “phone calls”, and ironically for a standard, very little working interoperability with other operators’ VoLTE. It’s an expensive “forced purchase” as the industry was too slow/complacent to come up with something better, and painted itself into a corner. It’s not going to stop people using other communications apps or services, it’s not going to halt revenue declines or reverse "peak telephony", and it’s still going to take years to transition the bulk of people from circuit. (And no, HD voice is not special – it’s been around on 3G for years, and is another minor feature upgrade nobody pays extra for).

WiFi-Calling is no better. It’s a slightly better implementation of a 10-year old idea, basically UMA v2.0. It gives better indoor coverage for some users in some areas. It covers for a lack of cell-sites or sub-1GHz frequency bands. In other words, it’s window-dressing, not something substantively different. There’s probably 4-500m+ people doing some sort of voice/video communications over WiFi anyway, using 3rd-party apps. It can in no way be described as “advanced communications”.

Some (fortunately few) are talking about ViLTE – which is VoLTE’s ugly video-calling sister. It’s pointless. The last thing to do with video is to “call” someone like a phone-call, unexpectedly and interruptively. There isn’t even a legacy user-base to pretend to migrate, and it’s clearly not as functional / cool / integrated / well-designed as the 100 other video-chat apps and APIs available, even without the fact that WebRTC means that all apps can integrate video if they need it. I'll skip over RCS as I'm sure you've got the picture by now - but read this if you're uncertain.

And this is the problem. All of a sudden “advanced communications” means VoLTE and WiFi-calling, with a side-order of irrelevant video/RCS. That’s just a convenient excuse not to do any proper innovation. They both just deliver plain-old phone calls, but on different networks. Yes, it’s nice to have better indoor coverage, but covering up for existing deficiencies is hardly worth a press release. It’s like adding a bagel function to a bread-toaster* and claiming a major step forward in cooking technology. Only at least people still think bagels are cool.

In my view, VoLTE and WiFi-calling are “make-work”. They make telco engineering and core network groups look busy. They give an excuse to vendors to try and finally sell their IMS infrastructure – albeit in NFV-based versions at lower cost. The policy vendors get a look-in too, so they can finally prioritise something with network QoS. And there’s the nice comforting mythology of ViLTE and RCS on the horizon to continue the gravy-train. 

And it gives an equally comforting mythology of “level playing fields” to take to regulators. That's nonsense, too. (See here)

Meanwhile, genuine innovation in voice, video, messaging, contextual comms, APIs, developer platforms, enterprise communications, CEBP, WebRTC, cool mobile comms apps, social voice, personal broadcasting, telemedicine, IoT-integrated comms and 101 other areas is carrying on regardless. But on the Internet, or on mobile, or in enterprise cloud-based comms.

But telcos and vendors, with their nice warm VoLTE/WiFi-Calling comfort blankets, can delude themselves they’re doing something “advanced” because they’re spending money and doing “stuff”. But it’s simply an excuse for failing to make hard choices. It’s “going through the motions”.

CEOs and CFOs should call their bluff. If it's just "phone calls" they might as well outsource the voice infrastructure in entirety. And telecom regulators should ignore the protestations about so-called "OTTs", when telcos are doing nothing to try to compete or meet modern customers' communcations needs and purposes. It's the Internet and app providers that are employing a "design" mindset here and need protection, not vice-versa.

Now this is not true of all telcos, nor all SP business units / teams though. There’s still a lot of interest in doing cool stuff with WebRTC, a number of interesting mobile apps by telcos, some interest in contextual communications and developer APIs. Telefonica TokBox, Orange Libon, Telenor appear.in, WebRTC platforms from AT&T and NTT & SKT, Comcast's Xfinity Share, Swisscom iO and various others. For many of these it's still early days - but that's the type of trial-and-error, agile, customer-centric approach that's so desperately needed.

But usually, those initiatives are done by the telcos' more peripheral units – labs teams, enterprise arm, international opco's, TV/content business, standalone developer-platform units, internal MVNOs, so-called “digital services” groups and assorted other teams of free-thinkers unencumbered by legacy mindsets or GSMA/3PPP/ATIS/ETSI doctrine. Often, they have interal battles with the legacy fiefdoms that don't want to risk cannibalisation - or being made to look over-resourced and slow. Politics wins too often.
There's also various MVNOs and smaller MNOs, from Truphone to Google Fi, that are trying to do something different as well.

Something similar is occurring in parts of the vendor space too. GenBand has its Kandy PaaS business which focuses on WebRTC for enterprise apps. Ericsson's Labs team is working on the OpenWebRTC mobile stack, and assorted non-telco uses of voice/video. Metaswitch is repurposing IMS as its cloud-based open-source platform Clearwater, encouraging tinkering and developer innovation. 

But plenty of other vendors keep recycling the tired old marketing lines on their ghost-written "content marketing" blogs or webinars about "How VoLTE and WiFi-calling & RCS will help you beat the OTTs". It's cynical clickbait, and either self-delusional or aimed at deluding their customers. Not one has any case-studies - or even a decent argument - about winning back users from WhatsApp, Snapchat, Talko, Wire, Periscope, Slack, Skype & Skype4Business or the 10001 other cool services.

This needs to change. Yes, VoLTE and WiFi-Calling have some value for some operators, mostly because they're forced into it. If they can reclaim spectrum, great. But they should NOT be excuses for inaction elsewhere. They do not redefine communications. They do not open up new revenue streams, or significantly help loyalty. They are, at best, strengthening the walls of the final core communications fortress, so telcos can defend 10% of their former territory against the invaders. Actually, the analogy is flawed - perhaps "liberators" is better, given the alternative are welcomed by users with open arms. The GSMA's so-called "Network 2020 Green Button Promise" is a pre-eminent example of this woefully narrow vision.

VoLTE and WiFi-calling should represent maybe 20% of operators' activity in future communications, not 80%. ViLTE & RCS should both be zero %. The bulk of effort should be on genuine innovation - or else acquisition / partnerships with those who can do it instead.

Yes, this post is confrontational and will no doubt put a few noses out of joint, including those at some of my own clients. But this is important - there's no value in rearranging the telephony deckchairs, when there's a vast iceberg of contextual communications, design-led apps and WebRTC hoving into view. Making a phone call on WiFi isn't going to help.


Jonas Lind said...

You are right. No one at the telcos seem to care about voice or take a strategic ownership of the voice service. One example is their indifference to spam calls and nuisance calls. The horrible disturbance from nuisance calls in the UK will most likely push customers over the edge. They will stop answering, refuse to give out their number, cancel their landline, and/or completely move to app/web based communication.

But BT (and other incumbents) seem to just happily enjoy the termination fees from the scammers and spammers who harass their customers. If I had been VP Voice at an operator I would have done everything possible to stop and block nuisance calls: Help the police with prosecution by tracing scam calls, lobby politicians for higher penalties, push for fraud prosecutions of call centres in India, block well known spammers, develop technical solutions that prevent caller ID spoofing, change Terms of Service for bulk traffic interconnect and ban spam calls (don’t know if that is possible) etc.

James Body said...

Spectrum Refarming is a concept which could enable widespread deployment of small cell infrastructure which is NOT owned and operated by the large MNOs. Efficient use of valuable mobile spectrum, particularly with the latest generation of highly capable and cost effective LTE small cells is something that is in everybodys interest. Current modes of spectrum use, where all usable spectrum is assigned exclusively to a small number of large operators who then fail to provide universal coverage is looking very outdated in todays world!

wifi plug said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
InfoStack said...

Until there are settlements north-south (and east-west) carriers will continue to view OTT as the enemy; instead of working in cooperation and embracing them.

Antithetically, Vo-SMSo/LTE and Vo-SMSo/Wifi should be mentioned in the same breath as concerns not only the user experience--indoor call quality, call/sms completion (how hard is it to send MMS of my cat from indoors in my apartment or house when my phone reverst to 2/3G)--but also external (macro-cellular) capacity improvements. Refarming of spectrum is the exogenous outcome as user's expectations suddenly and positively shift to embrace ubiquitous performance. Additional benefits would be the potential for spectrum and network sharing and much better roaming and traveling experience; particularly for the higher-end subscriber.

But really it's about making mobile devices the preferred and first, not only, interface and expanding even more the reach and service capabilities for the MNOs. But maybe I'm just a dumb consumer and missing something...

Dean Bubley said...

What do you mean by settlements? I've heard this N-S & E-W line before and it makes no sense whatsoever. There is nothing to "settle" unless there are relevant partnerships, typically around revenue-sharing of additional services (eg bill-on-behalf, advertising, user information etc)