The Road to IMS

One of this year's buzzwords in the mobile industry is slowly finding its way into the MEA market. IMS, short for IP Multimedia Substation, has long been touted as a platform to enable a whole host of new revenue generating services, and finally operators seem to latching on to the initial excitement of the developers.

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By  Tawanda Chihota Published  September 24, 2005

|~|Esa-Harju,-VP-EMEA-core-net.jpg|~|Esa Harju at Nokia believes that the demand is there for the services IMS can offer. |~|Back in 2001, manufacturers were already getting giddy about the prospect of instant messaging and presence services on mobile phones. Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola had just founded their ‘Wireless Village’ initiative and had given the world's first demonstration in Sweden of mobile instant messaging and presence, where handsets would display a list of contacts and their availability status. Using IMS technology as a base, operators would be able to easily tack on a wide range of services that could boost flagging ARPUs and drive the growth of value added services. Alongside instant messaging and presence, there would be the opportunity for the walkie-talkie features of push-to-talk over cellular (PoC), as well as VoIP calls and video sharing. IMS would offer convergence of fixed and mobile telephony, along with TV and other multimedia services, enabling the types of services that 3G networks make possible. The creation of new ‘blended lifestyle choices’ would allow users to mix and match services, such as voice conferencing and interactive gaming. Khaled Rifai, Lucent's director of business development MEA, has already envisaged the possibilities that will be available once the services are working as one. “You could step off a plane, which alerts a taxi driver of your presence, who sends an instant message telling you where he will pick you up.” The application that generated the most interest among operators was PoC, and the mobile community has been furiously working to develop a standard. Nokia decided to go it alone, making its own PoC functional handsets and it has not had much trouble finding operators also keen to deploy as soon as possible. “Push to talk actually started slightly before the IMS standardisation was concluded,” admits Esa Harju, VP EMEA core network sales at Nokia. “We have a strong list of references around the world.” Several of these have been in Europe, including T-Mobile in Germany and, more recently, Telekom Austria's mobile operation, mobilkom austria. Daniela Winnicki-Eisenhuth at mobilkom explains that following a trial in September 2004 the operator decided to launch a full PoC service in July this year, but not using IMS architecture. “The trials were very positive, we had a very good response.” So far mobilkom has found that businesses, primarily those working in groups, have been the largest users. “Young people have also been taking it up. Not just because it is a new technology, but because they can chat with up to 10 people simultaneously with just one push,” she claims. Reducing churn and increasing ARPUs were both factors in choosing PoC. “But it was also important for us to broaden our portfolio,” Winnicki-Eisenhuth adds. Nokia was selected as the chosen supplier due to prior cooperation with the supplier. “The only two handsets that work with the service are (from) Nokia,” says Winnicki-Eisenhuth, but with subsidised bundled deals, they were being offered for free, along with specialised PoC charging deals. “For US$24 a month you can push as much as you want.” Only a few months into commercial launch, mobilkom austria said it was assessing the benefits of IMS in order to decide on whether to migrate. With successful deployments in Europe, now the Middle East is on the radar of suppliers. “With regard to this region, I think it is fair to say we are making the first steps to start to help operators to commercialise these services, but as a region we think that the Middle East and Africa have great potential,” says Nokia's Harju. ||**|||~|Ghassan-El-Housseini,-PTT20.jpg|~|Ghassan El-Housseini of Motorola thinks investment in PoC can be recovered in a year. |~|Without the sufficient demand from subscribers in region, local operators could be entering blindfolded, but Nokia says it has done the research. “The thinking was to challenge the typical argument that relates to affordability of the services in these regions where disposable income is lower than in some of the more mature markets. We actually found that the price and cost are influencing consumers less than appeared to be the case, and that things driving them are the quality of the networks, the availability of services and obviously, the handset quality and the brand — both of the operator and the terminals. Those seemed to be of higher importance,” explains Harju. But while the vendors may be happy to dish out research showing the available demand, the question remains what sort of infrastructure does an operator need to invest in and when will it be available? “What the operator needs to deploy is IMS architecture, which basically consists of the certain network elements that you need to install in your core network, namely the call processing servers for the IP traffic and then the IP Multimedia Register, which effectively holds the subscriber information,” says Harju. Effectively, the IMS approach — known as functional decomposition — does away with the inferior vertical integration model, in which common functions are replicated for each application. IMS reutilises such common functions as billing and presence, integrating them in a horizontal fashion so they can be reused for many different applications. Operators can launch individual services vertically, such as mobilkom's PoC, but would have to repeat the same technology each time, a process IMS does away with. “We will start to be able to offer connections directly between terminals to actually establish IP sessions,” say Harju. “The applications can then be pretty much anything, the first on the cellular side we have seen have been push-to-talk, and then video sharing, effectively video screening on the go between two terminals,” Harju adds. Such advanced infrastructure sounds like a costly way to venture into the relative unknown, but Harju suggests otherwise. “You can start with what I would call very reasonable, almost minor investments in your network. For example, to start to offer video sharing, the cost per subscriber will certainly not be the biggest cost element in your business case. If you're calculating the commercial launch of such a service, there will be much more cost relating to the overall marketing.” Rifai at Lucent says the costs depend to a large extent on the size of the network and the number of subscribers to be supported. “Deploying an IMS infrastructure that enables new revenue generating services can be cost effective when compared with the customer acquisition and retention with the existing network.” He claims it is a misperception people have that these platforms are very costly, that the operators need to make a big architecture decision. “They do not. They can start by using the standard IMS technology, with relatively minor investments and then see how the services will take off, and build from there,” Rifai says. ||**|||~|Samir-Abu-Zahra,-CTO,-Fastl.jpg|~|IMS migration is the next logical step, says Fastlink CTO, Samir Abu Zahra. |~|Motorola, which in iDEN already had an established system dedicated to push-to-talk that had proved popular in the US with Nextel subscribers, agrees with Nokia's sentiments over costs. “Applications such as PoC have a clear business case, it is today helping operators increase ARPU and return on investment on the existing GPRS network,” says Motorola's PTT MEA regional manager, Ghassan El-Housseini. “Investment in PoC can be recovered in 12 months. The expense for the operator is a fraction of the GPRS investment. So basically, operators need to spend a few hundred thousand dollars to start with for services like PoC and IM.” PoC is a major service for Motorola, which has had 31 launches globally, according to research. “We have announced contracts with Etihad Etisalat (Mobily) in Saudi, Fastlink in Jordan, Turkcell in Turkey and Wataniya's operation in the Maldives,” explains El-Housseini, looking more locally. “We are also working with Nedjma in Algeria and are ready to launch having successfully performed testing.” Several operators in the Middle East are currently preparing, he says, with the aim to commercially launch PoC this year. Fastlink's PoC service was built without spending a huge amount on capex, utilising Motorola technology on top of the operator’s GPRS network, says the Jordanian operator's chief technology officer Samir Abu Zahra. It has been ready for sometime, but was held up by the country's regulator waiting on a standard. “I believe this formal standardising happened recently, so we hope to launch our PoC soon,” says Abu Zahra, who believes demand will be driven by the younger generation. All of Motorola's regional PoC contracts have so far been outside the realm of IMS, but the supplier is keen to point out the application can then be migrated. “The benefit of IMS is that once you have the platform in place and as long as your IMS system is open, which not all of them are, you can actually start to add on application servers on top,” says Motorola's El-Housseini. “The incremental cost of adding a new commercial service to your network will then go radically down.” Abu Zahra is confident that Fastlink will migrate to IMS, and is currently in the process of conducting a technical trial using Siemens kit. “The logical step would then be to migrate our PoC service onto this platform, on which more applications would follow.” A report from UK researcher ARCchart claims that with IMS, operators need not get “bogged down” integrating new services. Most struggle to deploy over four new applications annually, it adds, at a cost of up to US$10 million each. “With IMS, the time to market becomes weeks, rather than months, and the cost reduces exponentially.” Rifai at Lucent backs up this remark about deployment time. “In an IMS network, service can be deployed more rapidly because the applications will have interfaces designed to IMS standards.” While mobile operators may be looking to keep a close eye on IMS, so too are fixed-line operators, explains Rifai. “Operators such as Etisalat, and others across Africa and in South Africa are certainly looking, I believe there is a lot of demand from IMS from the wireline operators,” says Rifai. By offering the same service as mobile operators, fixed-line operators will no doubt be stronger when competing with them for revenues. Harju at Nokia also sees fixed-line interest in the technology. “The biggest driver for IMS on the fixed side is VoIP, the trend to start to offer voice connections using VoIP over wireless LAN or DSL, and IMS can then work as the IP switching fabric,” Harju adds. ||**|||~||~||~|IMS deployment shouldn't be too far round the corner believes Rifai. “In 12 to 18 months we should see RFIs or even trials in the region, and six months after that we should have deployment, both fixed and mobile.” The first step for IMS is migrating legacy TDM networks to Next Generation Networks. “Many operators in the region have either started this process or are in the early planning stages,” suggests Rifai. Middle East IMS may actually be closer than predicted, following news that Kuwait's Wataniya Telecom is set to launch services based on the technology, expected to become available before year-end. The operator has scored a number of technical firsts, including the launch of a balance transfer system between prepaid subscribers. The application, announced in May, is built on Nokia's Connect eRefill platform. As far as IMS goes, Wataniya's chief strategy officer and director of B2B, Niklas Sonkin says IMS is in the process of being developed and trialled by the operator in partnership with Nokia. In May, the two companies announced that they would work together in the implementation of advanced technologies that would enhance the operator's network and take Wataniya ‘beyond 3G’. As part of the agreement, Nokia is set to supply Wataniya with a wide variety of products including a HSDPA solution early next year. IMS is forecast to be introduced ahead of the launch of 3G, which is scheduled to occur before the end of the year, and will also be available over 3G when the network goes live. At present Wataniya has a nationwide EDGE network that it upgraded earlier this year in a high-profile project that saw it launch a programme to upgrade all existing SIM cards to EDGE. Sonkin says 650,000 new EDGE SIM cards are currently in circulation, 500,000 of which are being used by subscribers that have upgraded their original SIMs and a further 150,000 being used by new EDGE subscribers. In June, Wataniya also announced a deal with its other infrastructure vendor, Ericsson, for the delivery of the vendor's Mobile Organiser (EMO) service, Ericsson's first such deal in the Middle East. Under the agreement Ericsson agreed to provide Wataniya with a complete push e-mail solution including both hardware and application software. According to Motorola, Fastlink in Jordan conducted the world's first PoC call about one and a half years ago and Abu Zahra predicts that the Jordanian operator will move to an IMS architecture sometime in 2007. While Fastlink may have taken the PoC crown — despite the lack of a commercial launch — the news from Wataniya could bring another accolade to the Middle East, as its IMS launch could be among the first in the whole world. ||**||

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