The 5 WebRTC Business Benefits for Telcos?

WebRTC is a technology primarily driven by pure Web players so the question of how Telcos can and should take it into account does not have an immediate answer. Telcos themselves are likely going to have different approaches to this question depending on their backgrounds, assets and strategies. The technology is now reaching a development stage where I believe it becomes necessary to share visions on that matter and the upcoming conference is going to be a great opportunity to discuss where could be the value of WebRTC for Telcos.

5 Business Benefits for Telcos from WebRTCTo structure the answer, I would like to distinguish between the following 5 business options:

  • Add Web access to legacy Telco communication services
  • Offer Telephony interfaces to Web service providers
  • Add audio/video communications to Web-based Telco services
  • Innovate in communication services
  • Offer a development & deployment platform to Web service providers

Add Web access to legacy Telco communication services

This is probably the by-default attitude for a Telco and the first option on the list. Some legacy Telco services quite clearly need to be useable from Web browsers because it extends their reach, accessibility and ergonomics. One can think of A/V conferencing, Contact Centres and to some extent Unified Communication and Collaboration (UCC). Here, because WebRTC is technologically quite different from Managed VoIP, the interworking costs tend to limit the business cases. From another angle, the penetration of Web technologies has the potential to go beyond simply adding Web gateways to legacy infrastructures. One can think of supporting “Web” codecs and switching technologies in conference bridges or supporting a better web context integration in contact centers and UCC systems. The ecosystem has already very well understood those options and going along this path can be seen from a guy like me (I work in the labs) as business as usual. It’s worth noting that currently the value and economics of adding Web access to legacy Telephony services is still less obvious and need to be compared with a voip-app approach.

Offer Telephony interfaces to Web service providers

This business option has the merit of looking for new revenue streams. However it may be its only merit as strong pure-players (positioned as “service-nodes” and requiring specific phone numbers) already occupy this field and as large Web service providers could decide to connect through the legacy Telephony interfaces. Here, the sweet spot would materialize in the form of APIs for interacting with calls to/from regular phone numbers. Under the hood, what’s needed is quite complex (= likely expensive) and it collides with the ongoing transformation from circuit-switched to all-ip (IMS) technologies while the value of the addressable market seems limited and maybe even shrinking given that a portion of Telephony is likely to move to Apps or toward the Web.

Add audio/video/chat communications to Web-based Telco services

This typically concerns services such as Telco’s own CRM and WebMail. Here the key issue is customer relevance! I believe this does not involve transformation plans (beyond having the driving business units aware of the latest technological developments in the Web and the new opportunities offered): it’s business as usual.

Innovate in communication services

In many ways this approach is similar in intention to the Telco-OTT approach whether it’s done in-house or through partnerships. I would even not distinguish the two except that using Web technologies opens-up some more options (such as shown in Libon) and except that the multitude of companies able to participate to the Darwinian selection of the fittest is just growing bigger with WebRTC lowering even more the barrier to entry.

Offer a Telco platform to Web service providers

This business option recognizes that Web technologies reveal their potential when used in a full-Web context. It also acknowledges that those Web applications will be mainly coming from a variety of players from the Digital economy.

Put this way, it’s not an original approach in the industry: there are already a number of emerging development & deployment WebRTC API platform providers for the real-time web and while at least one well-known Telco did this bet (through an acquisition), one could wonder if this is a relevant market for a Telco or put in another way, how much relevant are the synergies between a platform provider for web communications and a Telco (datacenters; network footprint; enterprise accounts; … compared e.g. to platforms providers leveraging on Amazon Web Services and starting with an empty enterprise account portfolio). While the synergies may indeed be sufficient for some Telcos to take that business option I believe there is some potential for Telcos to find better sweet spots

First of all, the ultimate sweet spot for a Telco datacentre is at the Edge of the network facing end-users. Here there is a need to better understand the business opportunities brought by WebRTC and web real-time communications deployed at the Edge of the network. The field of applications would be significantly different than the usual inter-personal communications and should be searched within extremely latency and QoS demanding applications. For instance, some augmented reality and thing-to-thing use-cases may match these criteria.

Secondly, the Identity management framework used in Web communications has serious drawbacks when it comes to end-user privacy. While the largest identity providers in the web have business models based on tracking user activities for selling targeted ads, network operators have business models that would allow them to offer privacy guarantees to their end-users. Moreover, Telcos are in good position to offer strong authentication (leveraging on the SIM card) when it makes sense.

Finally, even if Internet-based communication may be sufficient for a variety of needs there are some demanding Web applications (typically when the Web communication has some business value) that could benefit from specialized network services. While WebRTC wasn’t designed with that in mind, realistic technical solutions could be designed to answer that.

The upcoming conference presentations will certainly be the opportunity to discuss in more depth some of these options and I expect that feedbacks from the conference participants could provide some useful inputs for next steps.

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What is WebRTC for Telcos?

Did the Telco bell ring?

Did-The-Telco-Bell-RingI often read statements from the “Internet advocates” or from vendors around Telco’s and their views/mistakes in relation to WebRTC, but barely any share experience from within.

I would like to share my thoughts on how the “democratization of voice” is seen by those who (still) earn a large portion of their annual revenues from it. What does it mean when various departments within an operator “want WebRTC” all of a sudden – what is “WebRTC for Telcos” – because sometimes, it is quite far from the obvious.

To follow up my last blog, let me share some first-hand thoughts how I perceive this (of course not only from within the company I work for, but also when I exchange thoughts with peers from various other operators). Some point out the believe the dial tone is still considered more important than actual web development or highlight that to some extent operators are bad for WebRTC. Parts of these arguments are often true. I asked myself: Why do operators most of the time start with telephony or consider IMS first when thinking about WebRTC?

Natural evolution vs the need for radical change

Well, why actually would they not start with it – that is after all the area they know and earn money from? Is it not natural that classical Telco people working day in/day out with SIP and deploying their brand new IMS consider using it for WebRTC as well (especially since IMS is mostly built for telephony)? I fully agree that we need a dramatic shift, but I wonder if anyone thought about how this can happen if not step by step, and how education inside the old structures can be done best in order to do so.

Change will not happen radically for everything, for everyone, for all our services, for our thinking, our culture – not just yet anyways. By doing a radical change in offering communications services, we can of course bet on the future already now, but which manager would risk revenues for the next years just to be the forerunner? Not to mention whether the people are ready (both from their knowledge and expectation perspective) to drive this change. I think it won’t happen overnight, it most likely cannot happen overnight, but that does not mean it is not happening at all.

Taking this into account: What is more natural than evolving your existing services and trying out new things when possible? An internal trial here and there perhaps, some laboratory deployments showcasing some of the functions the fancy new boxes have, but that are not used yet, or a student working on an innovative topic. As outlined by me before, it is easier than ever to try things out. Unfortunately that seems to happen mostly in the labs in a creative way and does not yet impact the thinking of the main organization unit dealing with (tele-) communication at the moment. This has to change!

How does the average Telco learn about WebRTC

Coming back to examining why it is that Telco’s seem to start always with classic click-to-dial use cases and are so keen on getting their IMS hooked up with WebRTC I asked myself: How did WebRTC actually “infiltrate” the average operator fellow’s mind set (of those looking at it at the moment – it is still far from being the majority within an operator) in the first place? Web 2.0 has not done that, neither have apps or Flash, or a move to IP in the core with NGN a while ago. What happened – why now?

At the moment I would say this has happened mostly through vendors. Our current technology vendors (mostly traditional ones that also provided technology decades back) come, present roadmaps, evolution of our currently running services, and also new boxes or features. These presentations are either given to technology and marketing together or separately. I can bet that certainly every single presentation of this kind contains WebRTC.

Here lies also one of the reasons for the Telco’s perception that IMS & WebRTC is closely related: Their first contact point is not Google, the larger Internet vision, or an excitement/drive for new things. They touch base with WebRTC mostly exclusively in relation to IMS and traditional services or the “classical” well-known suspects of “new” IMS services through their known partners.

It is not ignorance of alternatives to IMS or insistence towards SIP as signaling protocol, it is simply because many do not even know there is a need to think for alternatives. For the more conservative parts, using open-source software such as OpenSIPS/Kamilio for SIP in their core or thinking about IMS alternatives is already considered extravagant, and now those folks should question current approaches as a whole, even for their main services and change overnight? This is highly unlikely if you ask me.

Those who did not understand the transition yet and still believe in core legacy principles will most likely not change their view just because of WebRTC.

Operator services have not changed tremendously when the iPhone and apps came along.
Why should it happen now – just because of WebRTC?

Let’s assume people in charge of technology or products heard about WebRTC as described, think (in the context they have learned about it) about new possibilities, and come to ask one day to “add WebRTC to something”.

Now what does that mean?

  • They think about a service that should be accessible in browsers, e.g., an existing service such as “classic telephony”. Usually this means the request does not come along with any further requests. People don’t even think about “more” – new possibilities
  • They like the idea of adding voice or video to some website where this does currently not exist as a feature, but do not yet think about the potential that actually brings along
  • People operating new telephony platforms that evolved to IP will naturally hear about WebRTC, and since it is all IP the assumption of “just adding another end point” is rather obvious. Now they want also “the fixed line accessible with WebRTC”
  • Try out new “WebRTC capabilities” that have been part of a delivery (e.g. an SBC, media server, RCS platform) and simply explore what is now possible “on the web”

I have yet to meet somebody from an operator that till now requests any of the “real” WebRTC differentiators, such as contextual awareness, anonymity, or better codecs, and knows about that being worked on actively outside of some lab.

Chances: Enhance the existing & explore the new

So where do I see chances in the mid-term?

I tried to highlight that already in an earlier post: The Internet world will certainly teach us how to embed communications into the web and will do a much better job than us – despite our history with implementing real-time communication.

It is very crucial not to forget the value that can be delivered by evolving traditional services. New enhanced services are the ones mostly expected from an operator (by that I mean the evolution of services we currently offer) and also the ones where we can calm down controlling by keeping to some extend traditional less-risky operator business models. Maybe not per-minute pricing for the average consumer (but hey, they have flat rates anyways and just need to be properly identified), but for example “call center minutes” towards businesses can easily be charged even if the request is coming from a browser – at least for some time. And if existing traditional services are enhanced, maybe the current subscription will also not be cancelled just yet, even though alternatives arise. I do not suggest to keep this as long term strategy or that no change is needed; rather the opposite: Change is overdue, we’ve missed out before, let’s use our chances now and start with the easiest use cases immediately (it should be easy thanks to “All-IP” one might think).

Looking at embedding communications is also something I would try as an operator, but finding their real potential that will result in commitments of investing into it will take time I believe. I urge absolutely everyone to try gathering experiences in this area, but not to have too high expectations in the beginning. The cheering about the future value is unfortunately something that needs proven figures and an adaptation in the ”Telco mindset” to be fully understood. Motivations here are often cost savings or the simple unavailability of any budget for a new product idea (“Hey, we want video communication but have no budget – maybe we can use WebRTC”) rather than completely and thoroughly evaluated use cases. To follow up the call center use case – clearly the context can be exploited here and value can be added, but less with “pure end to end WebRTC” in the short term.

What is worth to mention is that I restricted some of my operator arguments by adding the apodosis “… unless it happens in their labs”. I believe that while WebRTC has its place in the labs, the new way of thinking has to make its way very, very quickly into the normal business units. I believe it is very important to gather experiences, not only for the development of so called new businesses, but even more importantly to reshape the existing business and adapt the new technology, new mindset step by step in as many areas as possible. This does in fact not even have to mean “do WebRTC” as understood by Google or anyone in the community. It simply means re-think current strategies how to best evolve legacy services and align with the new technologies and potentials that are available. We missed out on apps – let’s not miss out again!

Outlook and Conclusion

What are my expectations from the upcoming conference?

  • Share as many experiences from within as I can. Hopefully by then I can talk about some of our work as well.
  • See how other operators approach it. Learn about their experiences, less from technical perspective than from cultural, integration, coexistence of the old and new
  • Provide a balance between traditionalists/conservatives and the forerunners for whom change cannot come fast enough. I know where many concerns come from and am trying day in, day out to understand them and try to address them and clear them in a sensible way, and move forward – one step at a time J

Black-and-WhiteI summarized many points in this initial post that are worth a follow up, and I will try to highlight where I see the potential first and also tangle why some things just are not moving as fast as one would expect. My presentation will also highlight lessons learned so far (what is harder, what is easier) and look at where WebRTC – or rather the evolution of new paradigms that come along with it – can realistically be seen “at the average Telco” in the short term.

Remember: I believe the story is not black or white. For any shade of gray you want to draw, however, you need to understand and have both colors to do so and achieve the expected outcome.

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