In the telecommunications market, convergence is evident everywhere. Carriers are trying to consolidate their data, video, and voice networks to offer a wider range of services. They are working to meld their wireline, wireless, and cable television services and to present users with one bill for a variety of services.
They also want to merge their network equipment and application development environments, a complex process that could take a few years but should help them deliver multimedia services more quickly. “Carriers want to move away from the stand-alone system infrastructure that they have supported in the past to one that works with blended services,” said Ed Rerisi, vice president of research at ABI Research.
Currently, carrier application deployments take place in a stand-alone manner such that when a carrier wants to add a new service, say video conferencing, it must change all of its network and back-office equipment. This is a tedious, time-consuming process that requires a lot of effort and manpower. Carriers would like to be able to deploy a new service in one place and have it ripple throughout their networks.
A Simplified Environment
The key to delivering this ability is development of a standards-based IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS), an idea that has been gaining a lot of momentum among carriers and network equipment vendors. “At the Supercomm trade show, everyone was talking about IMS,” said Kevin Mitchell, a directing analyst at market research firm Infonetics.
Theoretically, this new infrastructure would not only simplify the application development environment, but it also would enable services providers to quickly test — and either roll out or discard — new offerings. Another plus is IMS holds all subscriber information in a single database, thus lowering operating costs and easing ongoing maintenance.
IMS offers carriers potential business benefits. “Carriers are no longer in stand-alone markets, like local access or wireless,” said Norm Bogen, director of networking at In-Stat/MDR. “They want to deliver services that their users can access from any network, wireless, wireline, Internet, and IMS offers them that possibility.”
Other groups may benefit from IMS acceptance. Third parties, equipment manufacturers and application developers, can develop products that will operate on various carrier networks. Users will find that new service deployment will become faster and less expensive.
While the concept of integrated services is easy to understand, the underpinnings needed to deliver it are complex. To support an application, a carrier has to develop software on a computer server; upgrade its network infrastructure (softswitches, gateways); enhance its monitoring and billing systems so they can charge for the service; and be sure that the end users’ devices (cell phones, laptops) are able to access it.
“To make IMS work, carriers need a more integrated environment than what they have had in the past,” ABI Research’s Rerisi told TechNewsWorld.
This process, which has already begun, involves tying together a lot of items that weren’t necessarily designed to work with one another. Gradually, carriers have been moving to new IP network infrastructures that are better able to work in this environment than the traditional Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN).
A key IMS building block is SIP, the Session Initiation Protocol, which was designed to establish IP connections between various end points. SIP has become the signaling protocol of choice for VoIP, and it offers carriers a way to track presence with multimedia, concurrent sessions. Support for SIP has been built in a growing number of devices from softswitches to handsets.
In addition to SIP, telecommunications vendors are developing a raft of other standards and interfaces, all needed to make IMS work. “Carriers are repackaging a number of interfaces that they had been using in the past and developing new ones as needed,” said Infonetics’ Mitchell.
The group charged with determining which interfaces to keep and which ones to tweak is the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), an ad-hoc vendor consortium that has been responsible for many infrastructure standards developments in the wireless market. The group had been working on IMS specifications for wireless networks for several years and has begun developing IMS release 6, which will work on wireless and wireline networks.
Analysts view IMS as in a nascent stage of development with service providers in fixed and wireless networks just starting to tinker with the building blocks. No carrier has yet added IMS features to the core of its network, and trials testing its viability and deficiencies are just beginning.
While interest in IMS is rising, that does not mean a return to the dot-com boom days for network equipment vendors. “The turbulence from a few years ago eliminated many of network equipment start-ups,” said In-Stat’s Bogen. “The companies that are left are now are well established. Since they all are at least talking about moving to IMS — and many are actually already moving toward support — they aren’t leaving much room for any new suppliers to enter the market.”
The more likely start-up opportunities will come from third-party application development. “Because there will be more standard interfaces and interoperability it should be easier for third parties to develop new applications,” Infonetics’ Mitchell told TechNewsWorld. IMS applications may start off simply with items, such as push-to-talk — Nextel has used it to differentiate its service, but in an IMS environment, the service becomes easier for any carrier to develop — and then extend to new multi-media services.
While the potential benefits are significant, it may take a long time before carriers put all of the IMS pieces in place. “We will see a few IMS applications in select locations in the next 12 months or so, but several years will pass before any carrier’s network will support IMS on an end-to-end basis,” concluded ABI Research’s Rerisi.