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What WebRTC Means for Telcos

Communication service providers are figuring out what role they can play in WebRTC through APIs, IMS, or their own services.

Sarah Thomas

June 2, 2014

7 Min Read
What WebRTC Means for Telcos

The question of what WebRTC means for telcos has many different answers, but it's one question that they should all be trying to answer right now.

WebRTC is an open-source project started by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) that enables developers to embed peer-to-peer real-time communications capabilities into supported web browsers. The standard, though not finalized yet, uses a JavaScript application program interface (API), which means that anyone can launch a voice and video-calling feature that works on the desktop and mobile web. Many pundits have called it the biggest innovation in communications since VoIP.

So that's the definition of WebRTC, but the key thing to remember is that there are anywhere from 20 to 50+ possible use cases, according to Disruptive Wireless analyst Dean Bubley. Each is very different, including in how it is brought to market and how much service provider involvement is required.

There are consumer-facing apps (see below), machine-to-machine implementations, enterprise use cases, internal applications, and IMS-integrated browser apps to replace the softphone, which Bubley says is the most talked about example, but also the most boring and slow moving.

"The interesting thing is there is no template yet for what carriers are doing in this space, as it should be," he says. "There are 101 different ways and different customers."

Figure 1: The WebRTC Landscape Check out Genband CMO Brad Bush's blog for a larger view of the infographic. Check out Genband CMO Brad Bush's blog for a larger view of the infographic.

It is easy to see why even the most basic WebRTC implementation would be an appealing proposition to any company with a call center or just one that works with consumers. When your customers find you though the web, click-to-call is the most direct way to get in touch. It becomes even more valuable when you can escalate a voice call to video without any interruption. (See Voxbone Tweaks Its Network for WebRTC.)

So far, several operators have dipped their toes into WebRTC in trials and actual implementations. Some early examples (of the boring variety) include:

  • Telenor Group (Nasdaq: TELN)'s appear.in WebRTC service, launched in January in 193 countries, lets users set up video calls in their browser with one click.

  • Telefónica SA (NYSE: TEF)'s Tuenti, a social networking service it acquired in 2010, offers calls to PCs using the latest Chrome and Opera browsers. (See Telefónica: Digital Dreamer? and Telefónica's Looking Trendy.)

  • NTT DoCoMo Inc. (NYSE: DCM) recently began a trial of a WebRTC-based video chat room, Skyway, for anyone with a capable browser. (See NTT Opens a WebRTC Chat Room.)

  • SK Telecom (Nasdaq: SKM) is experimenting with WebRTC use cases, including one that lets the visually impaired call customer service agents and provide a visual of their issue via video chat. (See SK Telecom Tests WebRTC for the Blind and SK Telecom Sounds Off on WebRTC.)

  • Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) says its new X1 platform, coming next year, will include WebRTC-enabled apps and video streaming.

Behind the scenes in WebRTC
Those are some consumer-facing examples, but they will likely not be the most common instances of operator involvement. Instead, they will play a role as the connectivity provider.

WebRTC is typically, but not necessarily, run as an extension to an IMS signaling core, so that if operators are connecting users via the web, they can ensure the quality and security of the call. This doesn't give them a consumer-facing function (like a lot of the operators want), but it's no less an important role for them to play.

The ephemeral picture site SnapChat's recent acquisition of AddLive, which offers a popular WebRTC API platform, illustrates why. Amir Zmora, vice president of alliances and partnerships at AudioCodes Ltd. (Nasdaq: AUDC), says that any company with its own web server can offer WebRTC, but it will have quality issues, especially if those servers aren't near where the call is being placed. Also, if the acquisition of AddLive taught the industry anything, it's that betting the farm on an API vendor that could suddenly vanish by way of acquisition isn't necessarily smart, even if it's willing to guarantee its code.

"Companies will move to the big ones, so a service provider that provides this type of service is something people will count on," Zmora says. "They know a Verizon, for example, will not disappear tomorrow, but a startup might be acquired or go belly up. There is a very good opportunity for service providers to provide the hosted backend for WebRTC."

Companies like call centers can't just rely on one-to-one calls. Connecting to an operator's infrastructure would enable them to connect via the SIP trunk or SBC anywhere in the world with quality and reliability in place.

The API advantage
Vendors like Genband Inc. are counting on this, as well. It recently introduced a gateway, SpiDR, that sits at the network edge to bridge the wireless network with the web. Greg Zweig, the company's director of solutions marketing, says it lets operators sell WebRTC connectivity as a service, just as they sold 800 numbers as a service. It just takes a simple API and a browser to replace the soft client. Operators can provide the connectivity, but they can also sell the URL or API to add the functionality to a site. (See Genband Builds a Gateway to WebRTC.)

"With WebRTC, you are giving people an experience and the ability to add services to that experience," Zweig says. "The service provider has a new avenue to reach that customer and expose new services."

Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU), too, is playing in the WebRTC space. It has its own developer program in which APIs are built directly into its products and open to developers. Ed Elkin, marketing director for advanced communication solutions at Alcatel-Lucent, says a big draw for enterprises to WebRTC has simply been the ability to make the tablet an extension of the mobile phone.

For example, Quobis, an AlcaLu customer, built an app using the vendor's IMS that integrates WebRTC into Salesforce, so that an enterprise employee can take a call from Salesforce.com on a phone or tablet or move it in between.

Elkin sees WebRTC as the perfect win-win(-win) for it, the network operators, and enterprises. Enterprises get dramatic cost reductions and a huge boost in productivity from the cloud and mobility aspects of the platform, and they can blend IT and community together, as Salesforce.com did. The service provider selling connectivity to the enterprise clearly benefits from the business, and AlcaLu can tap into an entirely new market.

"Everyone who loses is the old legacy customer premise vendors selling high-margin equipment that's very expensive," he says. "The enterprise saves money and gets more functionality. Service providers get a whole new line of business beyond traditional enterprise trunking, and we make good business doing this at the cost of the old CPE vendors."

But that is true only if operators act -- and sooner rather than later. WebRTC is a magnifier for carriers, as Bubley explains it. If they are already experimenting with over-the-top content and innovative services around video, they are likely ecstatic about the opportunity. If they are the type that's scared of Skype and SnapChat, it's only going to get a whole lot worse with WebRTC. His advice is to start experimenting, and not just from one part of the core network business, but several. See what sticks through trial by fire, much as Telefonica did with its digital division.

"This is one of those areas where there is the ability for individual groups to innovate," Bubley says. "That's ultimately going to drive success. It's a web technology. If it's treated like a web tech, that's good. If it's treated like a telecom tech, it will come with those disadvantages, as well."

— Sarah Reedy, Senior Editor, Light Reading

About the Author(s)

Sarah Thomas

Director, Women in Comms

Sarah Thomas's love affair with communications began in 2003 when she bought her first cellphone, a pink RAZR, which she duly "bedazzled" with the help of superglue and her dad.

She joined the editorial staff at Light Reading in 2010 and has been covering mobile technologies ever since. Sarah got her start covering telecom in 2007 at Telephony, later Connected Planet, may it rest in peace. Her non-telecom work experience includes a brief foray into public relations at Fleishman-Hillard (her cussin' upset the clients) and a hodge-podge of internships, including spells at Ingram's (Kansas City's business magazine), American Spa magazine (where she was Chief Hot-Tub Correspondent), and the tweens' quiz bible, QuizFest, in NYC.

As Editorial Operations Director, a role she took on in January 2015, Sarah is responsible for the day-to-day management of the non-news content elements on Light Reading.

Sarah received her Bachelor's in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia. She lives in Chicago with her 3DTV, her iPad and a drawer full of smartphone cords.

Away from the world of telecom journalism, Sarah likes to dabble in monster truck racing, becoming part of Team Bigfoot in 2009.

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