Setting the standard

IP multimedia system (IMS) could be the technology of the decade — it will change the way operators deliver services and consumers experience them

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By  Peter Branton Published  February 26, 2006

|~|feature1body.jpg|~|IMS standards make it possible for operators to separate their core network from their service delivery layer and consolidate their infrastructure.|~|Walled gardens. That is how telecom observers describe the cloistered networks of service providers that severely restrict the freedom of their consumers. Within these walled gardens, users are bound by their location, by the choice of their terminal devices (handset, notebook or wireline telephone) and most of all, by the services a particular telecom operator is willing to provide. However, these walled gardens are about to become history, thanks to a recent innovation called IMS, or internet protocol (IP) multimedia system. IMS is essentially a set of standards that are becoming popular around the world. These standards make it possible for operators to separate their core network from their service delivery layer — just as the computer industry separates the application software that helps you write reports and make presentations on your laptop from the operating system that runs the laptop itself. The implications of this separation are immediately obvious. It will allow operators to consolidate their delivery infrastructure and create new services more easily; it will encourage the emergence of new, third-party service providers (such as content firms) who use the core networks to reach consumers; and it will allow consumers to have experiences they had never imagined possible. In a nutshell, IMS can perform a number of functions — as a cost-cutting and revenue-generating tool for telecom operators; the lifeline for third-party service providers; and as a channel of new services for consumers. “IMS is going to shape the service provider landscape over the next decade,” says Anwer Kotob, regional systems engineering manager, Gulf Region and Pakistan, Cisco. The IMS standard was first specified by the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), as a way of increasing the functionality of packet-switched mobile networks such as global system for mobile communications (GSM) by incorporating support for IP-based applications and services. Since then, IMS has been embraced by many other standards bodies, including the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) and TISPAN. The standard supports multiple access types — including GSM, WCDMA, CDMA 2000, wireline broadband access and WLAN. The IMS architecture defines how IP networks should handle voice calls and data sessions. It replaces the control layer in a traditional circuit-switched network but with a key difference. In traditional networks, control functions such as presence, location and so on, and services are integrated tightly with the core network. IMS separates these from the underlying networks that carry them. The way it works is this. There are certain functionalities that are embedded within the core of any network (routing for instance). Then there are other functionalities — enablers — that work on top of these to deliver a service. Take a simple example: when a call is made, the network needs to know the location of the users (presence). As users converse, accounting and billing for that call has to happen. In this example, presence and billing are two enablers that interface with the call routing function of the core network. IMS incorporates standards that allow enablers and applications to access core network functions. This means that enablers and applications can be built independently of the network itself. Once the standard is adopted, an interesting possibility opens up, that of different network types such as mobile, fixed line, GSM and CDMA working together. Services and features available over one type of network now become possible to be accessed over any other type of network. It is this potential for bringing about a convergence between different kinds of networks that makes IMS so crucial to the future of telecom. David Zaoui, IP multimedia subsystems (IMS) manager, EMEA, Intel, likens the emergence of IMS to a shift that took place in the computer business: “It is like moving from the mainframe world to open standards-based PCs. As soon as you open your network, you allow different players to provide different parts of it, leading to more competition, lower costs and flexibility in deploying applications,” he emphasises. This is significant. “So far, the application has been tied closely to the network. IMS allows you to separate the two,” says Hisham Aroudaki, director, technical consulting, Siemens AG, Mobile Networks Headquarters, Middle East. Kenn Walters, analyst with ExpertOn Group, says IMS makes managing telecom networks easier. “Today, the entire infrastructure is organised in stove pipes — there is one infrastructure for delivering voice mail over landline, and another for delivering it over mobile. Effectively, you are managing different networks and this makes service delivery cumbersome,” he says. Zaoui says IMS will solve the problem by making it possible to deploy many of the functions on telecom-grade servers, made by companies such as HP or IBM. “Moreover,” he says, “these features might be developed by independent software vendors (ISVs). This will make it easy — and cost effective — to deploy new services. IMS allows you to build your service layer independently of the core network.” Today, if an operator wants to launch a new service such as voice mail, it has to develop all the components needed to deliver the service from scratch. And if it has both fixed and mobile businesses, it will have to have two separate structures altogether. The billing solution, the presence components, ever-ything has to be built separately for the fixed and mobile voice mail applications. “For each new service they offer, operators have to create separate networks,” says Zaoui. With IMS, this will no longer be the case. If an operator buys a presence solution for a voice mail application, it will not need to get another presence solution for a chat application. One solution will work for more than one application . Walters refers to these components as service delivery platforms (SDP). “Each additional deployment will be around SDP,” he says. These will be open in the sense that they will have standard interfaces that application developers can use to tie new applications to existing SDPs. “By de-linking the service layer from the core network, IMS makes it possible to create a common platform for service delivery across different types of networks,” says Zaoui. Sita Lowman, director, marketing, IMS Solutions, Nortel, says: “IMS will allow operators to consolidate their service delivery infrastructure. The opportunities for savings this opens up are huge.” In the early stages, some expect this — the rationalising of service delivery infrastructure — to be the most significant use IMS will be put to, rather than bringing about convergence or unleashing a swathe of new services. “IMS could very well be the back office technology that drives efficiency in an operator’s network,” says Zaoui. In a sense, IMS takes the concept of layered architecture farther than ever. It defines a horizontal architecture, where service enablers and common functions can be reused for multiple applications. It also specifies interoperability and roaming, and provides bearer control, charging and security. It works well with the existing voice and data networks, thus enabling fixed-mobile convergence. “The horizontal architecture of IMS enables operators to move away from vertical ‘stovepipe’ implementation of new services,” Walters goes on to claim. This creates opportunities for eliminating the costly and complex traditional network structure of overlapping functionalities for charging, presence, group and list management, routing and provisioning. Since applications will not be tied to the core network, they can be collocated over a common server, thus saving costs. ||**||Adding value|~|feature-2body.jpg|~|Companies can use IMS-based services such as PoC on the wirelesss network to have chat sessions with their staff.|~|But cost savings alone are not enough. “In many markets, subscriber levels are reaching saturation point. Operators need to introduce new, value-added services to grow their revenues,” says Lowman. This is where IMS is expected to make a big difference — by cutting down the cost and time associated with the creation of new services. It takes two--to-three years to deploy a service like SMS, for example. Considering the complexity and risks associated with such deployments, operators normally do not launch not more than two or three new services every year. With IMS, an operator can try out new services and decide to scale up the infrastructure only if they work. “The development time can be brought down to months,” says Richard Leather, business manager, IMS, Motorola Networks. Zaoui says operators can now roll out up to 10 services a month. Such flexibility paves the way for experimentation as costs and time-to-market for new services are brought down. Operators no longer need a sure-shot plan before they roll out services. “They can launch a service, see how people respond and scale accordingly,” says Zaoui. Since it is possible to write programmes that let enablers and applications work with any network, third party service providers too can provide services over an operator’s network. They can have their applications hosted over a telecom-grade server that interfaces with operators’ enablers. So what kind of applications can one expect courtesy IMS? Push-to-Talk over Cellular (PoC) is one of the first IMS-based applications that is available in the wireless network and has been deployed in countries such as the US. With PoC, a caller has to keep the ‘talk’ button pressed while talking. During this time, others cannot talk. Only when the caller lets go of the button can someone else start to talk. PoC scores over a telephone call in situations where there is a need to communicate to a large group without the need for everyone in the group to respond. It’s quite like the existing radio system fleet operators use. However, existing radio systems are based on proprietary technologies and therefore there is no interoperability between such systems from different vendors. PoC operates entirely in the packet-switched domain and is based on IMS service enablers and common functions such as group list, presence management, multi-party conferencing and charging. That means it incorporates advanced feature-rich services that are common in the mobile environment such as do-not- disturb setting, transparency (show speakers and members in a group call) and presence management. “This application could be very useful for businesses such as logistics where it can replace radio and mobile,” says Aroudaki. Kotob finds even more uses for IMS. “Companies can use it to have chat sessions with their roaming staff,” he says, adding: “All of this will affect the way operators charge. PoC could be free or come with very low fixed charges. And as you integrate data, you can move to push-to-video.” “Another very good application that should become a reality for enterprises is IP Centrex. IMS will let you integrate a VoIP-based Centrex with your mobile environment,” says Aroudaki. Also known as virtual hosted PBX solution, it combines IMS multimedia services with IP Centrex that can be used to create advanced collaboration services suitable for both enterprises and SMEs. The combined solution will host a complete set of personal and group services, with addition of multimedia support like video communication, conferencing, collaboration, presence management, instant messaging, outlook integration and support for remote workers. “You don’t have to buy thousands of dollars worth of black boxes (PBXs). Instead, you take it as a service from your operator for a fixed charge,” says Zaoui. “White-boarding is another useful application for companies that are in the consulting business. I think it is more efficient than videoconferencing for certain types of tasks,” says Aroudaki. Then there are services that will compliment existing voice or data services. Applications such as e-commerce, for example, do not really need to intersect with IMS. “However, there are situations where an IMS-enabled application can work in tandem with a non-IMS application. For instance, you could be browsing (non-IMS) on an e-commerce portal, says Kotob. “Suddenly, you need help for which you need to talk to an agent for some clarification. So there is a ‘click-to-talk’ option (which is IMS-based). You click on the button and an IMS-based PTT (Push to Talk) session is initiated,” he continues. “There are applications that necessarily need IMS underpinnings such as PTT and IP VPN. But not every new application needs IMS. So in the short term, IMS will exist with non-IMS applications,” says Kotob. Walters sees traditional VPNs being replaced by cheaper IMS-enabled VPN. IMS makes it easier to deliver VPN to SMEs since the costs involved in delivering such a service on a smaller scale are lower for the operator. While new services will help both consumers and operators, over time, the biggest draw of IMS will be convergence. “IMS’ real potential is as a technology that will enable convergence,” says Walters. The convergence could be at three levels. It could mean convergence in user services, devices or networks. A plethora of services (person to person, person to content and content to person) could be provided to the same user over different access networks and to different devices. A common device could support several access types such as CDMA2000, WCDMA, GSM, fixed broadband and WLAN. Alternatively, a telecom-grade quality of service could be provided over different networks with an emphasis on operator cost efficiency. “IMS, combined with open Service Delivery Platforms (SDP) will pave the way for one network. It will allow operators to get the most out of their networks,” says Walters. “The idea behind convergence is simple; from any network to any device,” he adds. Once IMS becomes ubiquitous, users and networks will be able to make optimum choices easily. So if someone in a building makes a call to another person in the same premises using his mobile phone, the call will be routed over wi-fi/WLAN which, in this case, will be the lowest cost option. As he moves out of the building, the call will seamlessly get transferred to a GSM/CDMA platform. If, at this point, a user wants to download a video, then he will automatically be connected to a high bandwidth Wi-MAX network. “At any point, in a converged scenario, the user will always be ‘best connected’. This could be in terms of price or quality of service or both. The point is, IMS will make that decision,” says Walters. However, all of this is unlikely to happen in one go. “People will not abandon what they have [existing infrastructure such as circuit-switched networks] and move to an IMS-enabled converged network,” says Walters. Kotob sees convergence as a natural outcome of companies deploying IMS-based services. “Since everyone — CDMA, GSM, landline, etc — has accepted IMS standards, they will build new services and applications around IMS. In time, as they create more IMS-based services, these will become the bridge that that will blur the boundaries between fixed and wireless,” says Kotob. But convergence is not merely a technology issue. “It will involve integration of two business units. That takes lot of alignment, of people and resources. It will take place in a step-wise manner. The real impact of IMS will be felt in two years’ time,” says Aroudaki. Before that, of course, the standards need to fall in place. You need standards for application programme interface (API) quickly. API is a set of protocols and tools for building software applications. A good API makes it easier to develop a program by providing building blocks. These do not exist as of now. “Currently, different groups with vested interests are pushing their own standards. Absence of standards killed WAP. There were applications such as video messaging and follow me, that would not work between different networks if they bought infrastructure from different vendors,” warns Walters. Besides, he adds: “You need to move to ‘single number’ quickly for fixed line, mobile, even e-mail. You as a consumer want one number. What happens in the background is irrelevant to you.” Walters thinks we have seen the beginning, and that the technology will mature fully in the next three-to-five years. Most, however, agree that by the end of the year 2006, or at the latest by the first quarter 2007, some IMS-based services will be rolled out in the Middle East. Applications such as Push-to-Talk are good candidates for early launch as they do not require a high bandwidth infrastructure. “There is a lot of interest among operators here,” says Aroudaki. Other vendors too claim they are in discussions with many of the region’s operators. Some even claim they are testing some solutions. It would be hard for any operator anywhere in the world to ignore IMS. Its billing as the most significant technological development of the decade is based on solid reasoning. Rarely have so many vendors, operators and international bodies come to agree on a set of standards. All agree there is no competing technology in sight. Even if the big idea of convergence is set aside for the time being, IMS’ twin USPs of lower costs and more revenue-generating services make it a compelling technology. To top it all, unlike some of the other technologies, trying IMS is not that expensive. “Equipment vendors today are offering not just hardware but bundled solutions. So they are acting more like system integrators,” says Walters. This has made it much easier for operators to test the waters. As Aroudaki puts, “It’s a question of mindset [trying IMS].” “Once that changes, revenues will follow.” he goes on to claim. ||**||

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