Guide to Telecom '05 Hype
Looks that way. Leading service providers seemed to be speaking with increased frankness here in Vegas on the challenges they face in weaving through today's tortuous tangle of acronyms – IMS, VOIP, WiFi, WiMax, SDP, IP, MPLS, ATCA, TD-SCDMA, BS...
Some leading CTOs spoke both in panels and interviews with Light Reading here at Telecom '05. For the technologically impaired, here I hope to spell out what some of these technologies are being promoted to do, what some service providers think of them, and what they will likely become.
Here's where we appear to be as of today:
Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP): This is a technology that allows service providers to carry voice calls over packet networks, specifically those based on IP. (See NeuStar Moves Into SIP Peering and Who Makes What: VOIP Infrastructure Equipment.)
The Hype: VOIP can replace all existing circuit phone services, it's cheap, it can be "blended" with other applications such as conferencing, and new service providers offering it will make bundles pleasing customers worldwide. Someday, you'll actually be able contact friends over the Internet using mental telephony.
The Reality: There are many different forms of VOIP. It's chief utility is its flexibilty and ability to reach any device. But implementing a pure VOIP network that never touches the PSTN is complex. Carrier-grade, end-to-end VOIP networks aren't yet common. And as a standalone business for service providers, it's hard to make money, because the margins are razor thin.
The RBOCs have a pragmatic view on VOIP. They see it as a tool to create new applications that aggregate the features of their existing services (for example, phone numbers that follow the user to different devices on both wireless and wireline phones, or IP-based conferencing).
"VOIP almost has this Hollywood celebrity status," noted Chris Rice, the CTO of (NYSE: SBC), in Monday's keynote panel. "The nifty thing about VOIP is it offers new features. It's more of an overlay for SBC. It's going to be a managed consumer service; it's going to be wireless grade. As you move to the circuit-switch replacement, that's a good 10-year window."
IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS): IMS is not a single technology, but rather, a set of technologies designed to help service providers integrate applications across a variety of networks, including wireless and wireline networks. (See IMS: Simplify First, Add Apps Later, Readers Pick IMS Killer Apps, Carriers Line Up for IMS Test, and IMS Takes Over the World.) The Hype: Sprinkle a little "IMS" technology on your network, and Presto! – it becomes all things to all people, magically turning your mobile phone into a powerful tool that allows you to open your garage door and water your lawn while you're at the office!
The Reality: IMS is very complex, involves several standards bodies and industry subsegments working together, and is in the very early days of deployment. Right now, its chief application is tying together VOIP services that work over both wireless and wireline networks. It will likely be several more years before the other applications – such as video and entertainment features – become part of the package. There's also the risk that standards efforts fail, and some parts of the IMS plan splinter into islands of technology.
"[IMS] is not a mature technology, it's very complex, it needs a lot of work," said SBC's Rice. "It takes a lot of work, and it needs a lot of standards."
"IMS still needs a lot of work," said Bill Smith, 's (NYSE: BLS) CTO, during the same Monday keynote panel. "I don't want everybody to think it's done and that you just buy one and plug it in. There's still a lot of work to be done. It's an excellent starting point."
"We needed it expanded out of 3GPP and into IETF to get this universal control infrastructure," says Mark Wegleitner, CTO of (NYSE: VZ). "I think we can get there."
WiMax: WiMax is a long-range wireless access technology that enables broadband over longer distances than WiFi.
The Hype: WiMax will provide large quantities of bandwidth as far as 30 miles. It's going to enable massive wireless networks that can provide affordable broadband access anywhere.
The Reality: WiMax is still "pre-standard," meaning vendors are selling equipment without a standard having yet been ratified. It's relatively expensive. To operate it cleanly, the operator needs to own a license to the spectrum to control the quality. Europe is standardizing on a different spectrum than North America, possible generating the same "dual-band" problem that is common to mobile phones. (See WiMax USA: Spectrum Crunch Ahead and Municipal Broadband Networks.)
Given these considerations, most service providers see WiMax as a fairly niche technology that can be used for specific applications – such as providing broadband access to folks in rural areas.
"There are still no standards," said Balan Nair, (NYSE: Q) CTO. "You need both a wireless broadband and wireless network – the applications are slightly different. The one thing that we're really looking at is what spectrum do you operate on. The reason that's important, if you think that voice is going to be an application, you can't be building tunable radios on the chips – that's more expensive."
Service Delivery Platform (SDP): It's a common software architecture that allows services providers to plug various applications into a common management system. (See Insider: Telcos Embrace SDPs.)
The Hype: Once an SDP is installed, service providers can easily deploy new services by plugging software into the system. It will work seamlessly with the existing back-office and management systems.
The Reality: Most SDPs are proprietary software platforms. To date, the standard interfaces for SDPs and back-office systems aren't clearly defined. Lots of it at this stage is just marketing. "I hate the term 'SDP,' " said (NYSE: TU; Toronto: T) CTO Ibrahim Gedeon, in and interview with Light Reading. "Back-office systems – that's the big problem. How do I decouple the application from the network and the back office? Right now that doesn't exist. The vendors are more focused on selling boxes."
Internet Protocol Television (IPTV): The collection of IPTV technologies range from video compression schemes to middleware and set-top boxes. Together, they allow a service provider to deliver video services over IP-based networks. (See SBC Stretches Lightspeed Timeline , Panel: Video Changes the Telecom Act, SBC on Lightspeed: Full Fiber Ahead, and Who Makes What: Telco Video.)
The Hype: By distributing video over networks using IP, anybody will be able to compete with the cable or satellite TV company, quickly generating new services revenue by selling video content.
The Reality: Although IPTV has been successfully deployed and is actually being used in many smaller markets, notably by some independent operating companies (IOCs), its deployment by mass-market RBOCs is still likely years away (think pilots in late 2006, with early mass deployments in 2007). It's possible that competition on the Internet will allow consumers to find content from other providers, regardless of the access network, thereby bybassing the access provider in the content revenue stream. High-definition video (HDTV) will require a minimum of 20-Mbit/s broadband connections. A lot of what happens with IPTV will depend on how aggressively the RBOCs spend to deploy the technology. On that front, they appear to be proceeding cautiously and methodically, so don't expect two HDTV streams coming into your home over a fiber connection any time soon. But one thing is encouraging – the large incumbents seem to get IPTV, and its potential.
"I think that IPTV can potentially represent the next generation of video entertainment as we know it," said BellSouth's Smith. "We are changing the expectation to be far more interactive and far more on demand. We have a field trial with a couple of dozen employees' homes. If all of that goes well we plan a market trial in a fairly large market next year. Right now I'm encouraged by what we are seeing."
"We've been doing IPTV for most of this year," said SBC's Rice. "We completed a phase three trial and we'll have a scaled launch in the spring. Some of the challenges... are in the home. How do you deal with the home cabling?"
What's the good news? The largest service providers are undertaking massive changes to their networks, and they understand the need to move. Competition will drive them to move and, even if all we hear is complaining, they are going to spend money to do it.
— R. Scott Raynovich, US Editor, Light Reading