FT, Telefónica Talk Up IMS

MILAN, Italy -- C5 World Forum -- Any doubts that major carriers are taking IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) seriously as a next-generation network (NGN) architecture framework were dispelled here this morning as both Orange (NYSE: FTE) and Telefónica SA (NYSE: TEF) gave updates on where they are with their IMS deployments.

Jorge de los Rios, head of technology development at Telefónica, told a plenary session here this morning that the Spanish carrier regards IMS as the most suitable way to attain some of its goals: network convergence, PSTN replacement, and cost cutting in terms of both capex and opex.

He said the carrier started investigating IMS as early as 2003, and began adopting early IMS network elements in 2004 with vendor partner Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC). (See Ericsson Provides IMS to Telefónica .)

Then in 2006 the carrier began its move towards unifying its fixed and mobile networks, and this year will trial some multimedia services using its existing IMS deployment. And while de los Rios didn't specify exactly which IMS elements it has deployed to date, various Ericsson partners have announced Telefónica engagements that fit into the ongoing NGN rollout. (See Telefónica Deploys Acme Packet SBCs, Telefónica Deploys BroadSoft, and Telefónica Deploys Movial.)

Next year, de los Rios said, Telefónica will begin its PSTN replacement program, switching over to softswitch-based voice management.

But the Spanish incumbent faces a number of major challenges as it increases its reliance on its IMS. The carrier has yet to begin the necessary OSS transformation required to support the new network elements and services, and interoperability among various IMS elements continues to be a bugbear.

And then there's the cultural challenge within the carrier, noted de los Rios, as the carrier's staff comes to terms with a new network topology and new service -- and therefore marketing -- opportunities. Part of that change involves bringing together the previously separate teams from the carrier's fixed and mobile operations.

Noel Foret, director of service and network control architecture at France Telecom, also stressed the internal cultural challenge that a shift to an IMS world brings to a major carrier. "Our teams have to work together," but often they are talking a common language while meaning different things, he noted.

So FT has been making organizational changes to enable a smooth migration to an IMS-based NGN, he added. Those changes include the creation of strategic marketing teams, called TechnoCentre; merged centralized technical teams drawn from the fixed, mobile, and Internet operations; and more local integration teams in the countries where FT has a significant presence, such as Poland and the U.K. (See FT: IMS Is the Future.)

The carrier has also yet to choose its lead IMS partners for its grand transition, which will also include fixed and mobile network integration and a replacement of the switched voice network over time. Although Ericsson has been involved in the carrier's initial retail VOIP trials, the Swedish vendor is up against stiff competition to land part of FT's major IMS award. (See Vendors Unite for IMS Pitch and FT Picks Ericsson for IMS.)

An initial major challenge for FT and its suppliers will be to update the carrier's existing VOIP customer base, which is already 3 million strong. Many of those services, run through the carrier's successful home gateway product, the LiveBox, are currently deployed using the H.323 IP telephony standard. Now those H.323 protocol stacks need to be replaced with SIP, the key protocol underpinning the IMS standard.

As those two European giants continue with their IMS plans, plenty of other carriers are following suit, according to Ericsson, which predicts that by the end of 2007 more than 100 operators will have begun implementing their IMS strategies with live network deployments.

That doesn't mean, though, that the IMS battle is over. As Stephane Teral, principal analyst at Infonetics Research Inc. , noted, "IMS looks good on paper, but vendors are making their own recipes out of it."

He added that a recent survey of 24 carriers showed that 50 percent of those operators regard the complexity of deploying multimedia services as a barrier to IMS deployment, while 46 percent see a lack of consensus on IMS architectures as another significant barrier.

— Ray Le Maistre, International News Editor, Light Reading

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