By Dr Paddy Byers
There’s been heaps of discussion of the 3 announcements about X-series services and the associated flatrate data plan. The consensus is that this offering heralds a new era in mobile data services; as Dean Bubley puts it, “the mobile broadband Internet cat is definitely out of the bag”.
Personally, I think there’s another angle. At least as important as the impact this will have on the future provision of data services is the impact it is likely to have on the future provision of voice.
X-series includes an “internet voice” offering based on Skype.
Why would 3 do this?
Most of the commentators found this surprising but I think it isn’t only a natural step, but a necessary step.
As soon as you introduce a flat rate data tariff, then users are going to start using it in all sorts of ways they didn’t before. If it’s priced like terrestrial broadband, they’ll expect to use it like broadband. All of a sudden your attention as a service provider is not focussed any more on maximising data services uptake, but minimising it; at least, making sure that the applications being used don’t bring your network to its knees.
This means, given flat rate, sooner or later, someone will deploy a VoIP application, and this is bad for the operator – not because it cannabilises regular voice services as most people think(uptake will be minimal) – but because of the demands it will make on the data network.
So, how do you fix this? Instead, you give those users a free internet voice service up-front; and by doing that, you get the opportunity to control and, above all, optimise that service.
So, 3 needed a solution that provided comparable “internet voice” services, but one that could be optimised to be effective over the cellular infrastructure. Skype was a natural entry-point given that Hutchinson Whampoa (parent of 3) has a significant stake in eBay/Skype.
The technical solution, however, isn’t straight end-to-end Skype-over-IP, but uses the regular cellular voice system to establish a call over the cellular segment to a VoIP gateway, which completes the call over the IP trunk system to the (broadband-connected) Skype user.
This means that the service can take advantage of the highly optimised system that already exists on the handset and offers a superior experience (in terms of audio latency, audio quality and power consumption) than would be possible using end-to-end VoIP implemented in application software – all without using complex solutions like IMS.
Thus, 3 can offer an internet voice service, and avoid the inefficiencies and network overheads of conventional VoIP over broadband, and can legitimately require that X-series subscribers do not attempt to use competing VoIP systems over the service.
So, when other operators are forced to replicate the X-series data service, they will find themselves in exactly the same position with regard to provision of internet voice services. Skype is less likely to be an option for these, as it would put them in the position of relying on their competitor’s technology.
So is there an alternative for other Operators?
The nearest available technical solution is Jajah.
This works in a very similar way, and can be enabled on existing phones via the installation of a native app or a java app; in fact, a competitor could even roll out a service to devices already in the field (which is something that 3, with X-series, have elected not to do, at least for now).
There has been some adverse commentary on Jajah but their mobile client seems to work well.
If I was a competing operator, I’d be looking closely at their solution right now. It will be interesting to see how this pans out in the coming months.
Again, it shows us that the Operator who has an early advantage in this area is likely to win significantly over others who may be forced to adopt a less optimal solution and that if I am right, a lot of homework went behind this announcement
UPDATE: since writing this the Talkonaut solution has
been brought to my attention and it looks to have similar capabilities