Of Sith lords and the dark side of IMS

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Introduction

I had been following the hype around IMS (IP multimedia subsystem) with some scepticism. On first glance, it sounded depressingly familiar, trailing the ghosts of long dead previous hyped up technologies (WAP. MMS, LBS etc etc). Most of the current media interest focuses on the question ‘Will IMS succeed?’ As we shall see below, this is a silly question often asked by people who are not familiar with the big picture (typically people who approach the industry from the business/marketing side and don’t understand technology)

However, when VON pioneer Jeff pulver (whose views I respect), compared IMS to the “return of the Sith”, I was intrigued. You see, the Sith and Sith lords get my attention(and that betrays my Internet roots i.e. you can tell I am not a telecoms guy originally). So, for the first time, we are talking not of the success(or otherwise) of IMS applications but of deeper (and darker?) motivations behind the hype surrounding IMS.

Of Sith and Sith lords

The return of the Sith is a star wars reference: meaning an old empire clinging to power.

If you need to revise your star wars, after losing the Sith wars with the Jedi, the Sith recouped under a secretive Sith Lord (Senator Palpatine of the Naboo first seen in Star Wars episode one ) and launched a comeback.

When I co-authored open gardens along with Tony Fish in Dec 2004, the walled garden edifice of the Mobile network operators seemed unassailable. It was deemed to be the ideal business model i.e. the Mobile network operator should be both the carrier as well as the provider of value added services. The services provided by the operator are, in some way, preferred to third party services. Users did not have open access to the Internet.

In little less than two years, everything has changed ..

Here are two examples:

a) The biggest exponent of the walled gardens model was the UK operator ‘3’ , (others followed a milder version of the ‘3’ mindset but ‘3’ was the operator which blocked all Internet access(i.e. full walled garden)). Has the ‘3’ strategy worked? As per timesonline, Three UK says its ARPU is 34.50 UKP (50 Euro/60 USD). Of that 25% is data. The majority of data is SMS. The point to note is: A majority of the data is STILL SMS, and that is no different from any other Mobile network operator. If the walled gardens strategy was working, then a majority of the data should be ‘rich media’(songs, movie clips etc), not SMS.

b) Did you notice that it’s a bad time to say that you are a mobile operator. The city is sceptical of the business model and the stocks of many of the mobile network operators are stagnant.

In the UK, Orange was just the latest company to announce that they are ‘not’ a mobile operator(rather they are some kind of a new converged communications company)

That’s a far cry from the strategy only a few years ago(voice revenues are going to decline but data(read some form of walled gardens) will rescue us).

So, the dark forces of walled garden mindset are on the run ..

But .. is there a Sith Lord plotting a comeback to the walled gardens?

Is that walled garden ‘IMS’?

What is IMS

Wikipedia provides a comprehensive definition.

The IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) is a standardised Next Generation Networking (NGN) architecture for telecom operators that want to provide mobile and fixed multimedia services. It uses a Voice-over-IP (VoIP) implementation based on a 3GPP standardised implementation of SIP, and runs over the standard Internet Protocol (IP). Existing phone systems (both packet-switched and circuit-switched) are supported.

The aim of IMS is not only to provide new services but all the services, current and future, that the Internet provides. In this way, IMS will give network operators and service providers the ability to control and charge for each service. In addition, users have to be able to execute all their services when roaming as well as from their home networks. To achieve these goals, IMS uses open standard IP protocols, defined by the IETF. So, a multimedia session between two IMS users, between an IMS user and a user on the Internet, and between two users on the Internet is established using exactly the same protocol. Moreover, the interfaces for service developers are also based on IP protocols. This is why IMS truly merges the Internet with the cellular world; it uses cellular technologies to provide ubiquitous access and Internet technologies to provide appealing services.

From the above definition, we see that SIP is at the heart of IMS.

The following definition of SIP is adapted from wikipedia

Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) is a protocol for initiating, modifying, and terminating an interactive user session that involves multimedia elements such as video, voice, instant messaging, online games, and virtual reality. It is one of the leading signalling protocols for Voice over IP, along with H.323.

SIP clients traditionally use TCP and UDP port 5060 to connect to SIP servers and other SIP endpoints. SIP is primarily used in setting up and tearing down voice or video calls. However, it can be used in any application where session initiation is a requirement. A motivating goal for SIP was to provide a signalling and call setup protocol for IP-based communications that can support a superset of the call processing functions and features present in the public switched telephone network (PSTN). The SIP Protocol by itself does not define these features, rather, its focus is call-setup and signalling.

Some basic functions being implemented by SIP are currently being done by the SS7 network(signalling system 7 network) within the telecoms industry. SIP can do what SS7 does currently but it can do a lot more especially when it comes to multimedia sessions.

SIP is a simple peer-to-peer protocol. It is similar to HTTP and shares some of its design principles: for example It is human readable and request-response structured.

IMS was originally designed for mobile networks, but with release 7 of IMS, fixed networks are also supported. This led to Fixed/Mobile convergence – one of the main drivers for the industry today.

The motivation and inevitability of IMS

a) The business case underlying IMS: Inspite of all the hype and the controversy around IMS, I believe IMS will be implemented. There is a simple reason why. That’s because , from a Mobile network operator standpoint, there is a clear business case for IMS. If internally(i.e. within the Operator’s ecosystem), calls are handled using IP technology, then the Operator’s cost base decreases(and hence profits increase). That’s why I say it’s a silly idea to question the possibility of IMS itself.

b) The question mark around IMS services: The real question is, how will IMS impact services for the end user (and that includes new services which are yet to be created). That, I am much less optimistic about.

c) An analogy with 3G: We saw the same analogy with 3G. A lot was said about the viability and possibility of 3G. Today, 3G exists in most parts of the world. But the sad thing is, 3G services have yet to take off. Inspite of all the hype surrounding 3G, Operators had a business case for 3G because network capacity was already strained and needed to increase(and that includes network capacity to handle voice). So, 3G was a ‘no lose’ situation in any case for the Operator. IMS is the same because there is a defensive reason for Mobile network operators to deploy IMS (as per point (a) above)

d) The offensive reasons for deploying IMS: include the much publicised new services such as push to talk, presence based services, gaming, multimedia conferencing etc. I am sceptical of their success.

e) Fixed to mobile convergence: Both fixed line and mobile operators are deploying IMS because they see growth in getting a share of each other’s businesses i.e. mobile operators want to get some fixed line customers and vice versa.

f) The hype from other players: Besides the motivations of the Telecoms operators themselves, there are many vendors who are also bullish about IMS. Infrastructure vendors like Alcatel and Cisco see IMS as an opportunity to sell more equipment. Consultancies like Accenture and Cap Gemini see the potential of implementation fees. So, suddenly, we see a lot of activity in the industry stirred up by all these players.

g) Overcoming the threat of VOIP: One of the motivations behind IMS was to overcome the threat of VOIP. But VOIP is free! Its very hard to claim VOIP and then charge a cost(which is what telecoms vendors would have to do to cover their investment)

The dark side of IMS

On first impressions, IMS seems to open up the Telecoms architecture to third parties such as IT companies and other providers. The adoption of the IP protocol within the Telecoms network also appears to be a positive development.

But there is a problem ..

We can best understand it by comparing it to a wider debate about net neutrality taking place in the industry today, with net stalwarts like Tim Berners Lee weighing in their arguments in support of a neutral Internet(all packets should be treated equally)

The save the internet site elaborates this debate succinctly on its website

What is saving the Internet all about?

This is about Internet freedom. “Network Neutrality” — the First Amendment of the Internet — ensures that the public can view the smallest blog just as easily as the largest corporate Web site by preventing Internet companies like AT&T from rigging the playing field for only the highest-paying sites.

But Internet providers like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast are spending millions of dollars lobbying Congress to gut Net Neutrality. If Congress doesn’t take action now to implement meaningful network neutrality provisions, the future of the Internet is at risk.

What is network neutrality?

Network Neutrality — or “Net Neutrality” for short — is the guiding principle that preserves the free and open Internet.

Net Neutrality ensures that all users can access the content or run the applications and devices of their choice. With Net Neutrality, the network’s only job is to move data — not choose which data to privilege with higher quality service.

Net Neutrality is the reason why the Internet has driven economic innovation, democratic participation, and free speech online. It’s why the Internet has become an unrivalled environment for open communications, civic involvement and free speech.

IMS is the same effect played on the Mobile data industry.

Hence, it is a potential walled garden at the ‘packet’ level. And that’s why I compare it to Sith Lords! It’s the final attempt to recreate a model which is already doomed.

I am not the only one who thinks so. Martin Geddes , whose views I also admire, says in an article published by the Moriana group

It (IMS) attempts to capture the flexibility and ubiquity of Internet Protocol whist ditching much of the Internet’s design philosophy.

Thats spot on! The Internet succeeded precisely because it was designed as a dumb pipe with the intelligence concentrated around the periphery. In other words, intelligent nodes and dumb pipes go together. ‘Dumb pipes’ means : all packets are created equal. There is no intelligence in the network, only in the nodes.

IMS uses IP , BUT adds some intelligence in the network because it does NOT treat all packets equally.

IMS promises to improve the quality of service, reduce SPAM, provide better quality rich applications(such as video) and so on. The often hidden caveat of this promise is the understanding that packets may not all be treated equally. In financial terms, it translates to premium prices for premium connectivity.

Conclusions

So, there you have it!

I believe

a) Will IMS implementations succeed? That’s like asking will 3G implementations succeed. Yes, they will.

b) Will IMS services succeed? I am not too optimistic

c) Is IMS ‘good’ for the industry as a whole? In my view, anything that violates the principles of net neutrality aka ‘Sith Lords’ is not good for the industry. It all depends on the mindset of the Telecoms implementations. QOS(Quality of service) is a good thing, but tiered price points based on the same principles is not.