Home EuropeEurope I 2013 The fragmented landscape of converged real-time communications

The fragmented landscape of converged real-time communications

by david.nunes
Jeff GordonIssue:Europe I 2013
Article no.:1
Topic:The fragmented landscape of converged real-time communications
Author:Jeff Gordon
PDF size:394KB

About author

Jeff Gordon is the CEO of OpenCloud. Previously Mr Gordon headed up Motorola’s EMEA infrastructure business. Prior to Motorola he chaired the Unisys European Management Board.

Article abstract

The way in which we communicate with each other has already undergone significant changes in recent years. From a technical perspective, the convergence of the Internet and the telephone networks is a reality. Ironically, it appears that the initial result of this convergence is fragmentation; everything, it seems, is being thrown up in the air. Telecom operators must adapt to survive in the new real-time communications environment.

Full Article

The last decade has seen the arrival of Voice over IP (VoIP) as an alternative to traditional telephone services. Still less than ten years old, Skype today serves in excess of 650 million registered users. They’re not alone. They have been joined by numerous other users on other VoIP services.

Historically, VoIP usage generally accounted for extra, discretionary minutes; additional calls only made because they were free; particularly for international calls where the cost benefit is at its peak. Furthermore, VoIP usage typically occurred when subscribers were stationary and connected to the Internet via fixed line or Wi-Fi. The use of high-definition (HD) voice and video has similarly been limited to times when a sufficiently high-bandwidth connection was available.

The advent of mobile broadband and smartphones has increased VoIP usage. Mobile subscribers can use any one of a large number of apps to make VoIP calls over-the-top (OTT) of mobile broadband. Now, you can use your personal phone to make OTT VoIP calls, and not need to connect a headset to a PC or laptop. This allows VoIP calls to be made from anywhere with good mobile broadband coverage, and not just when tethered to a fixed line. The contrast is more stark for receiving VoIP calls on a mobile, wherever you are: compared with pre-arranging a time for the call and being ‘on line’, on the PC, at the right time. With these barriers removed, OTT VoIP is beginning to undermine the revenues that network operators generate from their core voice propositions. This accounts for two-thirds of their income, and this income is now at risk.

New technologies trigger seismic shifts

OTT VoIP is at a tipping-point. The roll-out of LTE will give it a decisive push forward. With better mobile broadband provided by LTE, OTT providers will be able to further capitalise on the appetite for ‘free’ calls and in some cases, deliver a better service quality with features such as HD voice, and mobile video calling.

However, it is another emerging technology double-act that has the potential to cause even greater disruption: HTML5 and WebRTC. With this coupling, every organisation that has a website can embed real-time communications including voice and video calling into the browsing experience. Each organisation then acts as its own VoIP service provider.

Members of online communities, social networks, user groups and so on will be able to talk with each other simply by clicking a link on the webpage. Colleagues, suppliers and customers can connect similarly while using online collaboration and productivity tools. Consumer oriented organisations including retailers, utilities companies and government agencies can enable their customers to connect with them directly from their online store, customer care page, or ‘contact us’ page.

This holds a number of revolutionary implications for real-time communications. First, it introduces a whole new paradigm. Using traditional methods we will still be able to make a call whenever that need arises. However, we will find that while we are engaged in various aspects of our lives, the tools we use online will enable us to directly communicate with correspondents relevant to that context. The context will both stimulate the desire to talk – and provide the tool to do so.

The second implication is that if the website both stimulates the need to communicate and serves that need, then the website owner has become the VoIP service provider for its own user group. It has become its own micro-network. Aside, of course, for the need to provide mobile broadband, the operators’ services and the operators’ networks are therefore irrelevant.

The telecom operators’ brands have already lost mindshare to Internet giants such as Google, Facebook, Skype, Twitter, WhatsApp and so on. Subscribers think less about who provides the underlying connectivity, and more about the apps it enables them to use. WebRTC and HTML5 are likely to introduce further decline of operators’ brand relevance and important voice revenues will inevitably be lost as the uptake of these new services increases.

New islands of connectivity

There is a third implication. Today’s existing VoIP services like MSN Messenger, AOL Messenger, Google Talk, FaceTime and Skype all serve closed user groups: general service only supports real-time communication amongst registered members of the group who are currently ‘on-line’. The proliferation of OTT VoIP services has already created islands of connectivity. With every website owner able to establish its own insular micro-network, WebRTC will only fragment connectivity further.

Real-time communications is also fragmenting along the strata that form the service proposition:in addition to the constant quality of operator provided services with dedicated bandwidth, we now have the variable quality of best-effort VoIP services; HD voice is supported as well as current standard encoding; and services may support voice only, or combined voice and video.

However, there is more to delivering real-time communication services than simply establishing a voice or video connection with a particular quality.

The bedrock of real-time communications

Today, operators’ voice services connect more than four billion people with a universal service enhanced by key supplementary features that we, as end-users, often take for granted. Voice features such as call divert, multi-party calling, voice mail, short number codes and so forth are all elements of the voice service that are universal and work everywhere, regardless of the network hosting each calling party. When using WebRTC to make a call and, for example, the person we want to reach is not online we would want similar capabilities provided by the network to connect us to voicemail, or divert us to an alternative number. Network specific value-add services, ranging from colour ringtones to hosted PBX services, satisfy further needs of consumers and enterprise customers. These too are integral to the service.

Many telecom operators utilise specialist solutions for enterprises such as call queue management solutions for customer care. These solutions variously include menus and navigation, call-back functionality, waiting-time announcements, call logging, integration with the call-centre IT systems, etc. These same solutions are needed by enterprises regardless of how the customer calls: from a fixed-line; mobile; VoIP service; or via WebRTC.

Furthermore, delivering real-time communication services isn’t just about the service provided to the calling parties. Adjunct systems are needed to record, present and even respond automatically to key performance metrics of the service: service availability, service quality; availability of supplementary services and so on. Further systems are required to log and analyse information about the calls and the callers, such as: who is calling who; where are they located; how long is the call; what services are they using. Although historically gathered for billing purposes, this type of information is a rich vein of intelligence for marketers to tap into.

Providing complete real-time communications solutions is more sophisticated than just establishing an audio or video connection between two end users. As illustrated above, to deliver a complete real-time communication service additional network-based elements are required.

A Polish lesson

In Poland, mobile network operators have adopted a new approach to addressing the challenge of how to innovate and add value to their core telecom service offering. By deploying an open service layer within the core network, and leveraging the talent of a wide community of developers, operators can benefit from innovation that is both inexpensive and rapid. OpenCloud is providing its Rhino service delivery platform to Orange, Polkomtel and T-Mobile, which sits in the service layer, and allows third parties or operators themselves to innovate in their network.

This move to open has already delivered a series of low cost, high value services into their networks. Using this collaborative approach, T-Mobile has launched an SS7 location-based short number service designed for local businesses, the implementation of a hosted PBX for mobile handsets, and Freeyah– a VoIP service. Polkomtel has created more than 25 services, including Office Zone, Home Zone, VPN, Freephone, Split Charge, Premium Rate, Who Called/Notify ME, and Voicemail in Roaming optimisation.

Like all OpenCloud’s customers, these operators in Poland have recognised that through the use of an open service-layer platform they can take much more control over their innovation roadmap – independently from their equipment vendors. This freedom provides a foundation for them to leverage their core strengths to protect their voice and messaging revenues.

Foundations for the future

Telecom operators have some strengths they can draw from to protect their voice revenues from the threat posed by the transformation of real-time communications.To start with, the operators have amassed a wealth of experience in delivering complete real-time communications services. They have solved numerous complex problems that arise from the real-time interactions between the calling party, the called party, and the various other elements that deliver the whole service. The telecom operators have assembled supplementary and value-add services. They have also developed specialist solutions for enterprises. These are valuable assets for real-time communications in general. Not only do they apply to the operators own services, but to VoIP and WebRTC also.

Telecom operators can continue to work with enterprises on more specialist systems. For example, existing customer care queue management systems could be extended to handle WebRTC connectivity in exactly the same way as existing calls, helping to minimise changes to the call-centre IT systems.

For the potentially huge number of other organisations able to benefit from WebRTC, the telecom operators can deliver complete shrink-wrapped solutions encompassing the connectivity, the supplementary and value-added services and the adjunct reporting tools.

In fact, the telecom operators have a further asset that hints at another role for them in the new ecosystem: operators have a deep understanding of the intricacies of interworking coupled with an understanding that interconnection adds value to their business. With my mobile phone today, using the service provided by the telecom operators, I can call any one of four billion people; simply by typing twelve or so digits. There is a clear role for them in interconnecting the islands of closed user-groups: through the telecom operators own interconnected network these micro-networks could have global reach.

The convergence of telecom and the Internet is creating a variety of communication alternatives. The market is becoming fragmented: with more and more closed user groups emerging and a proliferation of service propositions threatening to decimate the operators’ voice revenues.

The new environment shows opportunities for evolution. Telecom operators have a role to play in helping organisations benefit from emerging real-time communications opportunities. A new paradigm of context-stimulated communications will have its place. However, the need to be able to call who you want when you want requires today’s model to be preserved. Therefore operators will also have a role to play bridging between these new islands of connectivity and the landmass of todays’ existing telecom networks.

The transformation of real-time communications is underway. The telecom operators’ main revenue stream is at risk of running dry. Operators must now start adapting in order to survive in the emerging landscape.


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