I recently attended the VoLTE Conference 2012, at which I also gave a presentation. The event was co-located with the WebRTC (Web-based Real-Time Communication) conference to promote cross-attendance. Although this planning probably reflects a marketing approach, the level of overlap created something of a tug-of-war between the two communities.
The term VoLTE is used to describe the GSMA IR.92 specification for implementing interoperable voice services over LTE, and relies on existing 3GPP standards. VoLTE specifies how user equipment/radio access network (RAN) interface voice optimizations are implemented to provide service quality comparable to circuit-switched networks. Similarly, it describes end-to-end interaction between user equipment and the IP multimedia subsystem (IMS) for signaling, supplementary services and voice calls.
WebRTC is the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) and the Internet Engineering Task Force’s (IETF) answer to real-time communications. Unlike Adobe Flash-based plug-ins, W3C and IETF are aiming to enable voice calling, video chat and peer-to-peer file sharing through HTML5-compliant browsers and web servers. Google Chrome and Opera already support this, and Mozilla has promised Firefox support in early 2013. It remains to be determined what Apple and Microsoft will do.
VoLTE conference participants were enthusiastic about the recent launches by MetroPCS and SK Telecom. However, they were also realistic about the challenges of deploying a new technology designed as a substitute for the best-understood communications service, telephony. This is a tough task considering customer expectations, and regulatory requirements like emergency services, lawful intercept and legacy value-added services using Intelligent Network (IN). Many participants complained about complexity related to factors like IMS, voice call continuity (VCC), etc. It seems that the industry has recognized its inability to compete with over-the-top (OTT) providers that are not bound by legacy services, monetization models, regulatory requirements and customer quality expectations. The panel session that took place on the first day gave me the impression that operators only have confidence in their success when the playing field is level. In other words, they believe they can only succeed if they are able to provide services similar to those offered by OTT providers.
Based on the enthusiasm of webRTC participants and the potential support the technology may receive from web giants other than Google, I predict that real-time communications will likely become an OTT reference within a short time. I also predict that webRTC will lower the barrier of entry required to offer real-time communications services, allowing more start-ups to flourish. Within that scenario, it is quite likely that mobile network operator-provided real-time communication services would be needed for years to come in order to handle basic essential services like voice telephony. There would also be a continuing demand for radio interface optimization and quality of service for both OTT and operator services. My presentation emphasized the importance of this aspect, especially during the lab validation phase. In other words, even when OTTs take care of real-time services, operators must be vigilant about validating the network infrastructure against its requirements.
While the future is bright for VoLTE-based services, GSMA’s Rich Communications Services (RCS) stands less of a chance against webRTC. Although many conference participants expressed a desire to offer RCS-based services for various applications, they also voiced repeated concerns about the solution’s complexity. The striking contrast between webRTC and RCS leads me to believe that the scale is presently tipping in favor of webRTC on account of its simplicity. However, the ability to monetize these new services will determine the eventual use of the IMS infrastructures that operators have heavily invested in. Exciting times and exciting ideas about how to transform the world of real-time communications lie ahead!