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Optical/IP

The Doctor Is IMS

Not for the first time, the big telcos are learning the hard way that there are no techno-panaceas for the many ills that afflict them. Two years ago, IMS leapt to prominence promising to be just such a tonic, but extensive trials of this new medication suggest that it is no miracle cure, and it can only go so far in bringing patients – a.k.a. telcos – back to blooming good health.

When we surveyed telcos in 2005, the great majority saw IMS, if not as exactly a cure-all, then at least as a very large part of the solution to the central dilemma they face: creating new applications and services that arrest the stagnation and decline in revenues from basic services. In surveys and interviews, telcos told us that the main benefit of IMS was that it could be used to create a whole raft of sophisticated new revenue-generating applications more quickly and at lower cost. Not only that, these applications would be able to run on any type of access network, and with QOS characteristics that would preserve telcos' reputation for reliability.

Those high hopes were not completely misplaced. IMS still does the best job yet of pulling apart the transport, control, and applications layers – something that telcos have been trying to do for years. That creates the basis for a much more flexible applications environment. And engineers involved in several major interoperability trials say that the standards are well-written and that vendor equipment works as advertised. As a result, many inside the big telcos still believe that IMS is only game in town.

Yet as so often in the past, the road from lab trial to commercial service is long and strewn with obstacles. As a result, IMS is taking a lot longer to deploy than telcos hoped in 2005, when over half of the respondents to our survey told us that widespread deployment would be well underway by 2007. In fact, as Heavy Reading's latest report, IMS Deployment Update: Promise & Challenges documents, almost all of the deployments to date are on a very small scale, and progress during the rest of 2007 is likely to be equally modest.

As the report shows, the barriers to large-scale deployment of IMS are varied and formidable. Among others, they include difficulties building IMS into legacy networks, difficulties making the business case for IMS, lack of IMS handsets and client software, lack of obvious applications, little progress in achieving commercial interconnect agreements, lack of standardized service brokering and orchestration tools, and confusion over the various standard releases for IMS.

However, it would be unfair to blame the standard-setters for these difficulties. IMS is certainly ambitious, but it was never intended to address every part of the problem telcos face in building new services and applications. Instead of complaining, for example, that the standard fails to fully address operational support and billing issues, or that there is no client software, telcos need to take a more active role in defining what they need initially from IMS in order to encourage suppliers to invest to fill the gaps and meet immediate needs.

Fortunately, there are some signs that realism is setting in, and that the road ahead is clearing. Recent surveys, interviews, and presentations, described in our report, suggest that a more nuanced and realistic view of what IMS can and cannot do is emerging. For example, most telcos now see IMS as a means to improve and enhance basic communications services, especially telephony, rather than as a means to create brand-new services. That is a sensible initial position, in our view.

But there is a lot more to be done, especially in the area of interconnect. While Net-heads are fond of pointing to the supposed anachronism of this model in the Internet age, the alternative – domination of new service development by de facto monopolies such as Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) or Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), or the emergence of warring and incompatible services (as in IM) is hardly more attractive. Telcos can exploit the historic benefits of interconnect by defining a relatively narrow set of communications-related services or service enablers that everyone can agree to interconnect, and establishing a global set of parameters in areas such as service and subscriber identification, billing conventions, and other key interconnect requirements.

At the same time – and this is just as important – telcos must begin the journey into a more hybrid future, in which new IMS applications and application enablers are made available not only to the telco's own product development and marketing teams, but also, as openly as possible, to third parties via API and SDK programs. Many telcos are beginning to understand this imperative, and are taking laudable steps to address it; it was clear from our survey that the idea of IMS as a "walled garden" now has little purchase among telcos, and that most recognize they must work with Web services and Web 2.0, not against them.

Still, there is a long way to go. While telcos see IMS as a great technical platform for building new applications, they are strikingly diffident about defining what these applications should be, and are – as so often – looking to their established equipment suppliers to help them. That lack of imagination and creativity is not a problem that IMS – or any other technical fix – can solve.

Ultimately, IMS is nothing more than a technology architecture – just a tool, which can be used for good or ill. It cannot change the ossified telco attitudes, bureaucratic mindsets, and departmental rivalries – something major telcos such as Orange (NYSE: FTE) and Telefónica SA (NYSE: TEF) are trying explicitly to address by linking next-generation IMS deployment with organizational shakeups that seek to bring down the walls between IT and network engineering, wired and wireless, and technology and marketing. It is a formidable task, but only in this way can IMS begin to achieve its undoubted promise.

— Graham Finnie, Senior Analyst, Heavy Reading

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