VoLTE paves a comeback trail for IP Multimedia through the cloud

UC has not yet rendered the circuit-switched network obsolete. The technology that was many said would do that ten years ago, may be making a comeback.
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Internet Protocol has held the promise of carrying all the world's telecommunications traffic--live voice, data and video--simultaneously, ever since the 3GPP specifications group proposed the IP Multimedia Subsystem in 1999. IMS was to have been the harbinger of convergence between all fixed and mobile communications, as well as the end of circuit-switched networks.

It was, in a sense, unified communications--assuming by that we mean, all the communications services of the world getting together and agreeing to unify on this completely new and different platform. It was as unified a platform as Esperanto was a common language. Getting operators on board with 3GPP's first attempt at interoperability--Rich Communications Suite, or RCS--fizzled out, especially as a new generation of tablets brought with them over-the-top communications apps that, in carriers' minds, rendered major investments in new IP communications hardware redundant.

"Nobody was buying IMS just to do IMS," remarks Joe Hoffman, practice director for mobile networks at ABI Research, in an interview with FierceEnterpriseCommunications.

But recently we've been seeing a revival of IMS with some vendors, most notably Alcatel-Lucent. What's different now? "They buy it today because they want to put VoLTE [Voice-over-LTE] on there, and all the other things that come from the digital communication age."

After one vendor was bold enough to put its toes back in the IMS waters (probably A-L), Hoffman tells us, he was skeptical of its strategy. "IMS has such a heritage for big, heavy iron. When you're trying to support ten, fifty, a hundred million subscribers, and push that down into enterprise, things do have to change a little bit."

That change will be gradual, believes ABI, but it will come. In a report released last April 22, ABI's Sabir Rafiq surprised me by predicting that IMS could earn a handful of vendors a collective sum of $1.2 billion in revenue over the next five years (not annually, but the five-year total). That's not astounding, but it's not flat either--and IMS-related revenue growth was truly flat, all through the last decade and into today. Unified communications evolved largely without IMS.

But now with cloud dynamics potentially playing a role, there's an argument to be made that IMS has cast off its heaviest anchor: all that dedicated hardware. Vendors can now present IMS as a service, so long as they have the cloud infrastructure to support it--and A-L certainly has that.

Hoffman believes the best immediate opportunity for IMS will be sales to large enterprises, not small, in partnerships with mobile operators. "It's really only right now for the companies that can afford this kind of a thing. And what would drive them to it is the merging of telecom and IT, which is what you're seeing in the operator world now, and also what you're seeing in the enterprise market--starting with the bigger guys, because of the roadmaps of technologies they want to deploy, and things they want to do with rich communications."

UC has the flexibility to scale services down to the SMB customer level right now. Today's IMS, in its new guise as a UC alternative, probably cannot scale down that far, Hoffman argues. Studying the 2,000 largest companies, he says, ABI drew a line in the sand of organizations with 10,000+ employees, and easily came to the conclusion that IMS would appeal above that line.

"We don't believe this is a technology that is fit to knock out unified communications," he adds, "because quite frankly, the UC market is two orders of magnitude bigger. But we do see an attraction of merging telecom and IT for the larger companies, moving down into medium-sized companies."

For more:
- see the ABI report from last April

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