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Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Voice: So much more than Phone Calls

 [Originally published on LinkedIn. Please subscribe to my new LinkedIn Newsletter here]

Trivia Question: When was the first example of network-based music streaming launched?

I'll bet many of you guessed that it was Spotify in 2006, or Pandora in 2000. Maybe some of you guessed RealAudio, back in 1995.

But the actual answer is over a century earlier. It was the Théâtrophone, first demonstrated in 1881 in Paris, with commercial services around Europe from 1890. It allowed people to listen to concerts or operas with a telephone handset, from another location across town. It even supported stereo audio, using a headset. It finally went out of business in the 1930s, killed by radio. Although by then, another form of remote audio streaming - Muzak, delivering cabled background music for shops and elevators - was also popular.

Why is this important? Because these services used "remote sound" (from the Greek tele+phonos) over networks. They were voice/audio communications services.

Yet they were not "phone calls".

Over the last century, we've started to use the words "voice communications", "telephony" and "phone calls" interchangeably, especially in the telecoms industry. But they're actually different. We often talk about "voice" services being a core component of today's fixed and mobile operators' service portfolios.

But actually, most telcos just do phone calls, not voice in general. One specific service, out of a voice universe of hundreds or thousands of possibilities. And a clunky, awkward service at that - one designed 100+ years ago for fixed networks, or 30+ years ago for mobile networks.

*Phone rings, interrupting me*


"Oh, is that Dean Bubley?"

"Yes, that's me"

"Hi, I'm from Company X. How are you today?"

"I'm fine, thanks. How can I help you?"

... and so on.

It's unnatural, interruptive and often unwanted. A few years ago a 20-something told me some words of wisdom "The only people who phone me are my parents, or people I don't want to talk to". He's pretty much right. Lots of people hate unsolicited calls, especially from withheld numbers. They'll leave their phones on silent. (They also hate voicemails even more).

I used to go into meetings at operators and ask them "Why do people make phone calls? Give me the top 10 reasons". I'd usually get "to speak to someone" as an answer. Or maybe a split between B2B and B2C. But never a list of actual reasons - "calling a doctor", "chatting to a relative", "politely speaking to an acquaintance but wishing they'd get to the point".

Now don't get me wrong - ad-hoc, unscheduled phone calls can still be very useful. Person A calling Person B for X minutes is not entirely obsolete. It's been good to speak to friends and relative during lockdown, or a doctor, or a bank or prospective client. There's a lot of interactions where we don't have an app to coordinate timings, or an email address to schedule a Zoom call.

But overall, the phone call is declining in utility and popularity. It's an undifferentiated, lowest-common denominator form of communications, with some serious downsides. Yet it's viewed as ubiquitous and somehow "official". Why do web forms always insist on a number, when you never want to receive a call from that organisation?

Partly this relates to history and regulation - governments impose universal service obligations, release numbering, collect stats & make regulations about minutes (volume or price), determine interconnect and wholesale rates and so on. In turn, that has driven revenues for quite a lot of the telecom industry - and defined pricing plans.

But it's a poor product. There are no fine-grained controls - perhaps turning up the background noise-cancellation for a call from a busy street, and turning it down on a beach so a friend can hear the waves crashing on the shore. There's no easy one-click "report as spam" button. I can't give cold-callers a score for relevance, or see their "interruption reputation" stats. I can't thread phone calls into a conversation. Yes, there's some wizardry that can be done with cPaaS (comms platforms-as-a-service) but that takes us beyond telephony and the realm of the operators.

Beyond that, there's a whole wider universe of non-call voice (and audio) applications that operators don't even consider, or perhaps only a few. For instance:

  • Easy audioconferencing
  • Push-to-talk
  • Voice-to-text transcription (for consumers)
  • Voice analytics (e.g. for behavioural cues)
  • Voice collaboration
  • Voice assistants (like Alexa)
  • Audio streaming
  • Podcasts
  • Karaoke
  • One-way voice / one-way video (eg for a doorbell)
  • Telecare and remote intercom functions for elderly people
  • Telemedicine with sensor integration (eg ultrasound)
  • IoT integrations (from elevator alarms to smartwatches)
  • "Whisper mode" or "Barge-in" for 3-person calls
  • Stereo
  • De-accenting
  • Voice biometric security
  • Data-over-sound
  • In-game voice with 3D-positioning
  • Veterinary applications - who says voices need to be human?

There are dozens, maybe hundreds of possibilities. Some could be blended with a "call" model, while others have completely different user-interaction models. Certain of these functions are implemented in contact-centre and enterprise UCaaS systems, but others don't really fit well with the call/session metaphor of voice.

I've talked about contextual communications in the past, especially with WebRTC as an enabling technology, which allows voice/video elements to be integrated into apps and browser pages. I've also written before about the IoT integration opportunities - something which is only now starting to pick up (Disclosure: I'm currently working with specialist platform provider iotcomms.io to describe "people to process" and event-triggered communications).

But what irritates me is that the mainstream telecoms industry has just totally abdicated its role as a provider and innovator of voice services and applications. You only have to look at the mobile industry currently talking about Vo5G ("5G Voice") as a supposed evolution from the VoLTE system used with 4G. It's basically the same thing - phone calls - that we've had for over 100 years on fixed networks, and 30 years on mobile. It's still focused on IMS as a platform, dedicated QoS metrics, roaming, interconnection and so on. But it's still exactly the same boring, clunky, obsolescent model of "calls".

There was a golden opportunity to rethink everything for 5G and say "Hey, what *is* this voice thing in the 2020s? What do people actually want to use voice communications *for*? What interaction models and use-cases? What would make it broader & more general-purpose?" In fact, I said exactly the same thing around 10 years ago, when VoLTE was being dreamed up.

Nothing's changed, except better codecs (although HD voice was around on 3G) and lame attempts to integrate it with the even-worse ViLTE video and perennially-useless RCS messaging functions. The focus is on interoperability, not utility. Interop & interconnection is a nice-to-have for communications. Users need to actually like the thing first.

Some of the vendors pay lip-service to device integration and IoT. But unless you can tune the underlying user interface, codecs, acoustic parameters, audio processing, numbering/identity and 100 other variables in some sort of cPaaS, it's useless.

I don't want a phone call on a smartwatch - I want an ad-hoc voice-chat with a friend to ask what beer he wants when I'm at the bar. I want tap-to-record-and-upload of conversations, from my sunglasses, when someone's trying to sell me something & I suspect they're scamming me. I want realtime audio-effects like an audio Instagram filter that make me sound like I'm a cartoon character, or 007. (I don't want karaoke, but I imagine millions do)

So remember: the telecoms industry doesn't do "voice". It just does one or two voice applications. VoLTE is actually ToLTE. It's not too late - but telcos and their suppliers need to take a much broader view of voice than just interoperable PSTN-type phone calls. Maybe start with Théâtrophone 2.0?

This post was first published via my LinkedIn Newsletter - see here + also the comment stream on LI

#voice #telecoms #volte #phone #telephony #IMS #VoLTE #telcos #cPaaS #conferencing

If you're interested in revisiting your voice strategy, get in touch via email or LinkedIn, to discuss projects, workshops and speaking engagements. We can even discuss it by phone, if you insist.

Saturday, August 08, 2020

A rant about 5G myths - chasing unicorns​

Exasperated rant & myth-busting time.

I actually got asked by a non-tech journalist recently "will 5G change our lives?"

Quick answer: No. Emphatically No.

#5G is Just Another G. It's not a unicorn

Yes, 5G is an important upgrade. But it's also *massively* overhyped by the mobile industry, by technology vendors, by some in government, and by many business and technology journalists.

- There is no "race to 5G". That's meaningless geopolitical waffle. Network operators are commercial organisations and will deploy networks when they see a viable market, or get cajoled into it by the terms & timing of spectrum licenses.

- Current 5G is like 4G, but faster & with extra capacity. Useful, but not world-changing.

- Future 5G will mean better industrial systems and certain other cool (but niche) use-cases.

- Most 5G networks will be very patchy, without ubiquitous coverage, except for very rudimentary performance. That means 5G-only applications will be rare - developers will have to assume 4G fallback (& WiFi) are common, and that dead-spots still exist.

- Lots of things get called 5G, but actually aren't 5G. It's become a sort of meaningless buzzword for "cool new wireless stuff", often by people who couldn't describe the difference between 5G, 4G or a pigeon carrying a message.

- Anyone who talks about 5G being essential for autonomous cars or remote surgery is clueless. 5G might get used in connected vehicles (self-driving or otherwise) if it's available and cheap, but it won't be essential - not least as it won't work everywhere (see above).

- Yes, there will be a bit more fixed wireless FWA broadband with 5G. But no, it's not replacing fibre or cable for normal users, especially in competitive urban markets. It'll help take FWA from 5% to 10-12% of global home broadband lines.

- The fact the 5G core is "a cloud-native service based architecture" doesn't make it world-changing. It's like raving about a software-defined heating element for your toaster. Fantastic for internal flexibility. But we expect that of anything new, really. It doesn't magically turn a mobile network into a "platform". Nor does it mean it's not Just Another G.

- No, enterprises are not going to "buy a network slice". The amount of #SliceWash I'm hearing is astonishing. It's a way to create some rudimentary virtualised sub-networks in 5G, but it's not a magic configurator for 100s or 1000s of fine-grained, dynamically-adjusted different permutations all coexisting in harmony. The delusional vision is very far removed from the mundane reality.

- The more interesting stuff in 5G happens in Phase 2/3, when 3GPP Release 16 & then Release 17 are complete, commercialised & common. R16 has just been finalised. From 2023-4 onward we should expect some more massmarket cool stuff, especially for industrial use. Assuming the economy recovers by then, that is.

- Ultra-reliable low-latency communications (URLLC) sounds great, but it's unclear there's a business case except at very localised levels, mostly for private networks. Actually, UR and LL are two separate things anyway. MNOs aren't going to be able sell reliability unless they also take legal *liability* if things go wrong. If the robot's network goes down and it injures a worker, is the telco CEO going to take the rap in court?

- Getting high-performance 5G working indoors will be very hard, need dedicated systems, and will take lots of time, money and trained engineers. It'll be a decade or longer before it's very common in public buildings - especially if it has to support mmWave and URLLC. Most things like AR/VR will just use Wi-Fi. Enterprises may deploy 5G in factories or airport hangars or mines - but will engineer it very carefully, examine the ROI - and possibly work with a specialist provider rather than a telco.

- #mmWave 5G is even more overhyped than most aspects. Yes, there's tons of spectrum and in certain circumstances it'll have huge speed and capacity. But it's go short range and needs line-of-sight. Outdoor-to-indoor coverage will be near zero. Having your back to a cell-site won't help. It will struggle to go through double-glazed windows, the shell of a car or train, and maybe even your bag or pocket. Extenders & repeaters will help, but it's going to be exceptionally patchy (and need tons of fibre everywhere for backhaul).

- 5G + #edgecomputing is a not going to be a big deal. If low-latency connections were that important, we'd have had localised *fixed* edge computing a decade ago, as most important enterprise sites connect with fibre. There's almost no FEC, so MEC seems implausible except for niches. And even there, not much will happen until there's edge federation & interconnect in place. Also, most smartphone-type devices will connect to someone else's WiFi between 50-80% of the time, and may have a VPN which means the network "egress" is a long way from the obvious geographically-proximal edge.

- Yes, enterprise is more important in 5G. But only for certain uses. A lot can be done with 4G. "Verticals" is a meaningless term; think about applications.

- No, it won't displace Wi-Fi. Obviously. I've been through this multiple times.

- No, all laptops won't have 5G. (As with 3G and 4G. Same arguments).

- No, 5G won't singlehandedly contribute $trillions to GDP. It's a less-important innovation area than many other things, such as AI, biotech, cloud, solar and probably quantum computing and nuclear fusion. So unless you think all of those will generate 10's or 100's of $trillions, you've got the zeros wrong.

- No, 5G won't fry your brain, or kill birds, or give you a virus. Conspiracy theorists are as bad as the hypesters. 5G is neither Devil nor Deity. It's just an important, but ultimately rather boring, upgrade.

There's probably a ton more 5G fallacies I've forgotten, and I might edit this with a few extra ones if they occur to me. Feel free to post comments here, although the majority of debate is on my LinkedIn version of this post (here). This is also the inaugural post for a new LinkedIn newsletter, Most of my stuff is not quite this snarky, but it depends on my mood. I'm @disruptivedean on Twitter so follow me there too.

If you like my work, and either need a (more sober) business advisory session or workshop, let me know. I'm also a frequent speaker, panellist and moderator for real and virtual events.

Just remember: #5GJAG. Just Another G.