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Mobile Roaming

To VoLTE or to OTT. That’s the question? Hmmmm…

This question has taken me back a few years when operators considered introducing Rich Communication Services (RCS) and the “to RCS or to OTT” question was raised as well. The answer is already known; RCS was proven to be a failure as users adopted OTT services instead. Operators have lost billions of dollars since the introduction of OTT services.
Although more than 300 mobile operators have already introduced LTE networks, only a few of them have introduced VoLTE. The reasons include significant technical challenges such as guaranteeing quality of service and very high costs.
VoLTE aims to guarantee HD voice when both ends are on the service, optimize networks and best utilize the frequencies, save battery consumption of the devices and more. Analysts have found that VoLTE can be a nice to have service but it neither increases the ARPU in the short term nor resolves the operator’s major concerns (such as declining roaming revenues or limited service coverage in rural areas, high towers and indoors) in the long term.Mobile Roaming

While operators are looking for a long term solution, there is a serious need to overcome these challenges now before it is too late. VoWifi has been recently introduced and might serve as a long term solution but it is not relevant for the immediate future as only a few mobile devices currently offer this capability. In addition, the technical challenges involved ensure that it’s a long way off until it is fully adopted.
So, is there a less costly, less complicated and much faster solution that overcome these challenges for mobile operators?
The answer is….. Yes. A mobile OTT communications solution consisting of mobile apps and backend servers, costs only a fraction of the invested capital in the new technologies, is fully deployed and operational in few months compared to years and so simple that it requires only the installation of an app by the customer would be a solution.

I have listed some of the challenges and the ways to overcome them by mobile OTT solutions.

The major concerns of mobile operators

Mobile operators have enjoyed high revenues in the past. Today they are facing serious threats from opportunistic OTTs who offer alternative services for little or no cost, causing a sharp decline in their roaming revenues. Limited service coverage in rural areas and high towers is still a concern, as this causes dissatisfaction and disruption of service.

Defending Roaming Revenues Strategies

In recent years, mobile operators have retaliated by adopting VoIP technology. Some have offered roaming VoIP plans utilizing available free Wi-Fi networks while other operators have offered bundled packages of GSM & VoIP over Wi-Fi. This solution was good but not good enough, neither for the operators who couldn’t guarantee high quality service due to the unpredictability of non-controlled Wi-Fi connections, nor for the roaming subscribers who had to search for available open Wi-Fi networks in certain areas and pay high prices due to the bundled high price of GSM roaming costs.

Nowadays, data roaming prices are low, data connectivity is available almost everywhere and operators have upgraded their data networks to support higher capacities. Operators are able to guarantee a higher quality of voice service at low prices, while their customers maintain their same cellular number when using the OTT communications apps.

AudioCodes’ MobilityPlus, ALL IP OTT communications solutions, which consist of white label mobile applications and backend servers, enable operators to offer low cost, yet profitable HD voice, video and messaging over IP services utilizing roaming data networks (3G, 4G, LTE).  This keeps their subscribers using their cellular numbers over IP networks. By doing this, operators promote a new bundle of roaming data and VoIP services. Subscribers who purchase cellular roaming data will have access to VoIP service as well, a service which increases subscriber loyalty.

Improving Service Coverage

Mobile operators are technically challenged, however, to increase service coverage in areas with limited coverage such as rural areas, high towers and indoors. Subscribers in these areas report a high rate of unsuccessful calls and disrupted service causing them to consider alternative solutions which in turn leads to a decrease in communication services revenues.

With the increase of Wi-Fi network availability readily found in these areas, customers receive calls and send texts over existing home and office Wi-Fi networks rather than the operator’s mobile network that is limited or does not exist.

AudioCodes’ MobilityPLUS OTT app supports Wi-Fi calling as a preloaded app within the subscribers’ smartphone (on Android smartphones) or as an OTT app that keeps the subscriber using his mobile number. MobilityPLUS enhances service coverage and guarantees HD voice quality when participants are on Wi-Fi networks.

Continuous Service Connectivity Mobile operators who have adopted VoIP technologies to overcome today’s challenges need to address the lack of continuous service connectivity when subscribers move between Wi-Fi and data networks and vice versa.  Until now, subscribers who were on a VoIP call over Wi-Fi could not move to a data network (3G/4G) without having the call dropped. In many cases, the user disconnected and redialled when moving to another network. Not Anymore. AudioCodes’ MobilityPLUS assures mobility with continuous connectivity, guaranteeing a seamless handover between Wi-Fi to 3G/4G and vice versa. The solution combines AudioCodes’ MobilityPLUS Mobile OTT and Mediant SBC solutions, leveraging unique SBC capabilities and leading mobile VoIP technology.

OTT-Island

Media, Signalling and Breaking the OTT Islands

My post summarizing some of the Telco presentations at WebRTC 2014 received a comment from Josh, one of our blog’s loyal readers,who pointed out the market need for breaking the OTT islands.

On the topic of transcoding in your piece. Can you tell me how hard it is to transcode or not and can being a strong transcoder bring a high barrier to entry OTT VoIP network to market? I believe Audiocodes is one of the few players that can transcode brilliantly. For example: I believe you can allow for Whatsapp users to talk to Viber or Line to communicate with Skype. Now that is a service that would knock the socks off the market. Can you give me some color on this thought process?”

My reply to Josh was:

“Great comment that deserves a post as an answer rather than just a reply in the comments section”

So here it comes…

I would like to break down the comment into 3 topics:

  • OTT Islands
  • Media
  • Signaling

OTT Islands

This boils down to the following: do these service providers/OTTs want their services to interconnect?

Imagine you couldn’t call your friends’ home or mobile phones just because you are using service provider A and he is using service provider B. That’s not something we can accept.

In the Telco world, interoperability is king.

One of the reasons excuses Telcos use to justify their slow progress on RCS and VoLTE is the need for specifications to stop changing. They invest endless efforts and money to assure interoperability, that you can call anyone and that you can take your mobile to any country with a compatible network and just use it as a roaming user.

Using the same thinking process, some wait with WebRTC as even WebRTC1.0 is not really finalized and now we have ORTC and WebRTC 1.1 in the plans.

In the OTT world, interoperability contradicts the basic DNA of the company. They build islands and protect them. They typically don’t want you to be able to call someone who is not on their network unless you do it using some “out” service based on PSTN and are charged accordingly.

OTT-Island

There are rare cases where OTT players open up for others to interconnect between them. I was fortunate enough to be involved in such an initiative in my previous life. We provided a server that connected between two very big OTT players. Initiative came from them as they were battling an even larger OTT service provider and concluded they would be better off teaming up on this.

This interconnect was requested by them, hosted by them and available only for them. To the best of my knowledge, this interconnect wasn’t that successful. The reason might be that the interconnect was only for a limited set of capabilities. Doing full interconnect – user management, presence, voice, video, chat and advanced communication features – is hard and not always desired by the OTT as it eliminates the reason for a user to join their network, as he can access it from his current one, so why bother installing another app.

WebRTC is an interesting beast in this context. On one hand it is being adopted by traditional telecom vendors and service providers but on the other hand it was built for the web and has some OTT symptoms.

WebRTC deployments have strong client server coupling and connectivity to other networks is done through a GW, similar to the way it will be done in the case of OTT.

Assuming an OTT does want to open his service for interconnection, there are two big items he will need to make sure are open. Signalling and media.

Signalling

Signalling in this context includes all communication between the client and the server that is not media (media preferably goes directly between the clients).

Finding users, adding them as contacts, publishing presence information and receiving such information, initiating sessions (chat, voice, video) and activating advanced features. All of these functions require signalling.

OTTs don’t wait for standards to be ratified. On the contrary, signalling is the area where they differentiate, where they add their unique competitive edge. While some base their signalling on standard protocols such as SIP, there are always layers on top that make it different from the standard.

Hacking OTT signalling is sometimes possible, the problem is that OTT service providers may change parts of their signalling or add capabilities as they add more features. Moreover, if they don’t want you to GW them to other networks, they can block you.

Media

Media is a completely different animal. While some OTT service providers view voice quality as one of their strong points (Viber played on HD voice high quality in their early days), generally speaking, voice and video codecs used by these service providers are industry common codecs.  Skype, for example, developed the Silk codec for their internal use but later on opened it for everyone to use and today Silk is a popular codec. Opus, the mandatory codec for WebRTC, incorporates both Silk and CELT.

Viber does claim to use some internal codec but since most of these OTT players (Viber among them) provide PSTN connectivity, they have the capability to transcode the media used in their island to G.711, thus, to any codec.

Relating to the comment Josh made: While there are many transcoding solutions available, especially when voice traffic goes over the open internet, as in the OTT case, quality issues may arise. Given over 20 years of experience and technology developed at AudioCodes our products include quality enhancement capabilities that compensate impairments and network behaviour differences such as jitter and delay.

Why this is important?

While people see value in interconnection between OTT players or even having multi-OTT applications, OTT service providers typically view this in contradiction with their interest. They want users to use their service so they can monetize them.

VocaNOM People

Mobilize Your Users or Stay Behind

[Post is better viewed on the blog Website]

With very few players providing mobile communication services before the smartphone era, it felt like heaven for some major mobile service providers. But then mobile OTT apps kicked in! And ruined the party.

Oh, the Good Old Days

What was it like to be the CEO of a mobile carrier back in the days? Having a huge user dependency on cellular infrastructure and running in a playground where the smartphone is yet to be on-shelf, data revenues were booming and profits seemed well assured.

But in today’s mobile reality, OTT mobile apps are posing a huge threat for all service providers and carriers alike. Data revenues are continuously dropping. Being a CEO of a mobile service provider today means you’re in a war that you’re probably not too familiar with; Not a war between giants, but between viral mobile startups who are able to take the market within a year, to slow-moving, monopoly-DNA’ed creatures who now realize the urgent need for a decent battle.

Alongside mobile carriers who are struggling to cope with the booming OTT mobile market, the enterprise sector stays stuck in the middle. IT departments have to be impossibly flexible when they need to provide an organizational infrastructure that’s as easy as WhatsApp but well secured and comprehensively managed like Microsoft Lync.

VocaNOM People

No sweat, No Sweets

Building a solid mobile application arsenal for the OTT battle is not only fruitful, but also crucial for a service provider to stay in the game. AudioCodes is constantly aiming to enable mobile carriers and enterprises to cope with the modern OTT challenge in telecom. MobilityPLUS, an OTT mobile application for service providers and carriers, makes a classic 1-stop solution with its all round voice, messaging, video and social features. For a mobile carrier, the ability to distribute HQ mobile VoIP user-clients to its subscribers, freely branded and thoroughly integrated makes it an ultimate weapon for its OTT war. Roaming, a well-known incentive for users to go OTT, can finally be untangled and brought back to the service provider playground not just for data but for native voice communication as well at competitive costs and top-tier service quality.

A Foot on the Gas for the Enterprise

VocaNOM, a cloud-driven voice communication app for businesses and organizations, is a good example of how the enterprise market can also start making its way forward in the mobile app plot. Organizational and business contacts are always a mess to handle when you have an organizational phone directory that has zero-connectivity with a user’s smartphone.  For an enterprise, being able to manage all organizational contacts on the cloud, providing easy access and dialling for its users using voice recognition, is simply great if it wishes to stay up-to-speed and serve its organizational users with top-notch communication tools.

AudioCodes at SMW C2014

Time to Take Mobile Communication Forward

These are only few examples of how holding off the OTT turbulence is more than possible for service providers and enterprise, given the right tools and applications. At CTIA 2014 Super Mobility Week, we will be meeting up with service providers and enterprises to talk about what AudioCodes can do for them to mobilize organizational and commercial users all at once. I feel like whether you’re a service provider or an enterprise IT manager, there’s a lot we can do for you to empower your user-base.

See you in Vegas!

To schedule a meeting with AudioCodes at CTIA 2014 Super Mobility Week, visit:

http://www.audiocodes.com/events/ctia-2014

Steve Austin

Why RCS Failed

[Post is better viewed on the blog Website]

How Standards Define Themselves to Death

Steve AustinSteve Austin, The Six Million Dollar Man, was – Better…Stronger…Faster… That was the hope of RCS (Rich Communication Services).

RCS started its journey at the GSMA in 2008 with the promise to allow service providers to deliver “OTT like” services with interoperability across service providers and managed quality of service as it is provided by those that own the network. By being better than what OTT can offer, users would vote for those services of the service provider.

Where was the market back then?

Looking at OTT on mobile at that time, things were still kind of preliminary.

Skype – Mainly used on desktops, Skype for mobile was in its infancy

WeChat – didn’t exist, launched in 2011

WhatsApp – Didn’t exist, launched in 2009

Facebook Messaging – Project Titan for user to user messaging was launch in 2010 and mobile messenger app was launched in 2011

Viber – Didn’t exist, launched in 2010

You get the point…

The important things to conclude from this data are:

  • Back then, when RCS started, there was still plenty of market share for it to capture
  • The OTTs listed above took the market by storm working vertically (a specific service) and not horizontally (many services for a specific segment/region)
  • They are all islands…didn’t wait for any standards
  • Oh…and they are all free

Why RCS lost to OTTs?

RCS has standardized itself to death in 2 ways.

It has insisted on trying to define and standardize everything possible rather than sticking to the bare minimum. Due to this, it lost a lot of time and left little room for flexibility to those who wanted to deploy it. RCS and the brand “joyn” defined everything all the way up to the user experience, what the address book should look like and what the user would see on each and every screen.

On top of that, RCS standardization tries to capture requirements from 2 camps, what was known previously as RCS and RCSe, later to be unified under the Blackbird standard version. This moves sounds great but Blackbird still includes different options for doing pretty much the same thing. When you define multiple ways to send a message and to implement presence based features, the life of the developer becomes more complex.

The promise of RCS was valid

The promise of RCS was, and even today still is a valid one. It has been proven to be valid through the success of OTT players such as WhatsApp that provide some of the RCS services but in a proprietary way.
Different from VoLTE, that has good technical and business reasons to replace Circuit Switched voice, RCS doesn’t enjoy the network ownership advantage, OPEX savings and enhanced user experience compared to using an OTT service for the same purpose.

The major benefit of RCS could have been cross service provider interoperability.

Other assumed benefits, such as a unified user experience, are not more than a pipe dream as not all device vendors will vote for what joyn has defined (i.e. Apple). Given that, we are left with an application, at least on some of the devices, and not a pre-integrated experience that comes pre-loaded on the device.

The enhanced address book and integration with the phone’s address book has come to the OTT applications user experience a long time ago. Given the ubiquitous nature of some of them (who of my friends doesn’t have WhatsApp? None!), the benefit of RCS interoperability is losing its advantage.

There was another option

The other option was to put time-to-service at a higher priority than top to bottom standardization work.

Time-to-service as priority #1 doesn’t translate to zero standards, it translates to standardizing only what really needs to be standardized as was done in WebRTC, while leaving the rest for the implementers.

In context of RCS that would mean APIs (e.g. send message, get contact…) for applications to use the RCS service for launching innovative services and things related to payload (e.g. how a file is transferred between clients).

Service providers and RCS server vendors would provide client SDKs based on which the service provider could launch its own services. Additionally, they would provide them to developers to build services with and integrate them into other applications.

Conclusion

Reality has proven that even in places where standards exist, once communication crosses between services and networks, it goes through mediation servers. We see more coupling between clients and servers today, something that contradicts the goal of standards, to enable zero vendor lock. This reality is apparent today in every type of real-time communication – UC, IP-PBX, VoLTE and WebRTC. There is no reason why it will be different in RCS and therefore waiting runs the risk of missing the opportunity.