Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Sustained operator push is setting the stage for Joyn and RCSe success

Could RCSe work after all?

It represents the biggest counter-offensive from operators so far in their battle with OTT players. Yet critics want to know just how RCSe will compete with OTT services, whether it has the required reach, and most pointedly, if it can move fast enough.

Based on a specification put forward by some of the biggest operators in the business and backed up by the GSMA, it promises subscribers IM chat, video and file sharing services across any device, on any network, with anyone in their mobile address book.

Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telecom Italia, Telefonica, and Vodafone have all committed to rolling out RCSe under the joyn brandname. And if they get it right, the superior user experience served up by RCSe can help them start clawing back some of the traffic lost to OTT offerings.

That’s the theory, anyway. Opinions are split on whether it’ll actually work – detractors point to the enormous popularity of services like Skype, the daunting task of getting RCSe on as many devices as possible, and the fact that the GSMA has estimated it could take up to three years before the service is globally available.

Tough questions, certainly. But what if the operators have the answers?

Because it’s still early days for RCSe, with joyn only announced at Mobile World Congress in February. And there are already signs that momentum is slowly building in the operators’ favor. Faced with the prospect of being locked out of operator portfolios if they don’t cooperate, nine of the top ten handset manufacturers have stated their commitment to supporting RCSe on their products.

The single hold-out might be a big name – Apple, no less – but Deutsche Telekom’s Kobus Smit recently opined that as joyn is intended to be a core communications service, Apple’s continued non-participation may become a cause of dissatisfaction for iPhone users.

Roll-out hasn’t been slow, either. Telefonica and Vodafone Spain launched joyn in June, followed by Vodafone Germany in August. And when it comes to the all-important user experience, opinion might just be starting to swing away from the OTT competition. Only last week, one report described RCSe as the best of both worlds, combining the functionality of OTT services with the reliability of operator offerings, and Gabriel Brown of Heavy Reading told us recently that there is a need for reliable, secure, rich communication services – and that this is exactly what operators do well.

But perhaps the most telling indicator of RCSe’s potential comes from a familiar source. We’ve written before about South Korea as a bellweather for communication services trends, and the evidence suggests that interoperable, operator-based IM services have certainly shaken things up in the Land of the Morning Calm.

Network traffic increased a staggering 100 times following the launch of an IM service by the country’s three major operators in March 2009, while the number of users grew 54 times. The operators also discovered that heavy SMS users continued to text at the same levels, and simply used IM to communicate even more.

So there you go. RCSe may not be too little, too late. It may be just on time. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

Is VoLTE poised to be a platform for innovation?

Now we’ll see what Voice over LTE can do.

The service known as VoLTE recently went live in South Korea on both the SK Telecom and LG U+ networks, as well as in one market for MetroPCS in the US.

And LTE also continues to spread fast, with the GSA predicting there will be 195 LTE networks in 72 countries by end of 2013 (up from 159 networks in 68 countries at the end of 2012).

And if operators truly want voice to work in this new LTE environment – if they want to give their users a good experience – they will need VoLTE, which gives them the opportunity to provide telecom-grade services to compete against the likes of Skype.

It’s not a surprise that South Korea is the leading VoLTE market.  We examined the country in May and found it on the cutting edge of most telecom trends, from smartphone adoption to the OTT challenge to operators.

We talked to Gabriel Brown, of Heavy Reading, to get some insight into the Korean VoLTE launch. He also said Korea – with its early LTE adoption – was a logical starting point for VoLTE.  VoLTE requires good LTE coverage and ideally would be supported by multiple operators. Korea has that.

But there is also national pride at stake.

“It is also an opportunity for Korea and the Korean telecom industry to demonstrate their prowess globally,” he said. “By being first, they can show their expertise internationally.”

But what about the service itself? In an interview with Telecom Asia, Ian Koh of Ericsson, makes a compelling case for the benefits of fast call connections with VoLTE.

Of course, the most crucial role for VoLTE is as the platform for new services like HD voice and video calling. And FierceWireless says the proposed MetroPCS merger with T-Mobile could spur VoLTE innovation in the US, even though MetroPCS is not yet marketing the service and says it will take four to six months before they have VoLTE up and running in all their markets.

Brown, of Heavy Reading, says that while there hasn’t been huge demand for VoLTE yet, there is “a need for reliable, secure, rich communication services.”

That is exactly what telecom does well, he says:
Even if consumers are not aware, in the industry there has been enough development for us to come to the conclusion that more operators will launch services in 2013, and it will become more mainstream from 2015 and onward.
So what do you think?  Should operators make VoLTE a priority as they roll out LTE?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Can Apple and the iPhone 5 drive HD Voice and VoLTE?

You can always count on Apple to bring a technology into the mainstream discussion. And the launch of the iPhone 5 has people talking about all sorts of formerly telecom or ICT-specific subjects – mapping technology, bandwidth for video calling, LTE spectrum in Europe, and … HD voice.

The new iPhone supports HD voice, and the service will be supported by more than 20 operators worldwide and will be supported on both GSM/HSPA and LTE networks.

From the Verge:
An iPhone, which will undoubtedly sell tens of millions of units, could be just the catalyst that (HD voice) needed to gain widespread acceptance.
HD voice had already been gaining momentum this year, to the point that Doug Mohney of HD Voice News has said 2012 could be “the year” for HD voice, at least in Europe. And, at least in Australia, where Telstra will support HD voice, the reviews are starting to come in, and they are good.

There is only one hang up in all this good iPhone buzz – HD voice will not be supported in the US, even by Sprint, which offers HD voice service. The problem is that Sprint runs its HD voice service using a different technology than the worldwide standard. So there are lots of articles with headlines like this: Why iPhone 5's Support For HD voice Will Mean Nothing To U.S. Users.

This confusion reflects the benefits of sticking to standards, but in the end any publicity is often good publicity. Most consumers in the US had never heard of HD voice before last week. Now more of them have, and they might perceive it as a cool feature they want. (Plus, it will be available on two networks in neighboring Canada).

Another silver lining is that Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile seem to be focused on what PC Magazine calls “the real future” of HD voice, which is over Voice over LTE (VoLTE).

The new iPhone will also give VoLTE an indirect boost, as it drives LTE subscriptions, with Verizon in the US particularly looking to leverage its LTE network to attract iPhone users. In turn, this can only help VoLTE gain traction. And VoLTE opens up a lot of business possibilities for operators from video calling to chat to content sharing.

In the following video, Apple praises LTE and video calling, albeit with its own OTT system, FaceTime.

Previously, FaceTime could be used only over WiFi. Now it has gone cellular. Again in the US, AT&T is getting criticized by consumers and net neutrality advocates for only allowing cellular FaceTime usage for subscribers to new shared data plans.

At FierceWireless, Tammy Parker suggests that AT&T could charge for FaceTime usage by the minute. But she also wonders if the company is looking for a showdown over net neutrality.

So what’s the big picture here? We see Apple focusing on making voice calls better, through HD voice and an additional microphone, as well as prioritizing video calling (even if OTT). One of Apple’s strengths is its laser-like focus on consumer needs, rather than just the latest technology. Apple is not going to bother with features that don’t please their customers, and it is clear Apple thinks voice is worth investing in.