TECH TALK: Next-Generation Networks: IMS Impact

by Ninad Mehta

During the last several years, we have seen the voice services market being attacked from many non-traditional competitors. There is a fundamental shift in networks from segregating voice, video and data to treating everything as data (over IP). This has rendered access providers to mere bandwidth providers on whose networks, VNOs (Virtual Network Operators) such as Vonage & ATT CallVantage can ride. Couple this with Skype etc. who are providing peer-to-peer voice services using your existing PC.

There is a paradigm shift in the voice world from smart network, dumb endpoints to dumb network, smart endpoints. While the former was necessary for mass adoption of the public switched telephone networks and the communications infrastructure, the latter has a severe impact on the business models of the traditional service providers. We have seen the transformation of smart network, dumb endpoints previously. Mainframes supporting dumb terminals paved way for client/server computing using Minicomputers from Digital. Then Minicomputers gave way to Suns workstations. Smart PCs connected LANs and file/print servers have resulted in mass adoption of todays computing infrastructure.

Now, we are witnessing a similar value migration in the wireline voice world. Standard based networking protocols such as SIP, MGCP & H.323 have enabled applications and endpoints to become smarter over time. VoIP over wireless has the potential to enable similar value migration from todays cellular voice networks to Voice-over-Wifi endpoints supported by the next generation voice service providers (VNOs).

What this means for the incumbent service provider is that even if they dont lose customers to these new competitors at a rapid enough pace, they are surely losing control over their customers fast. Their biggest challenge is maintaining their profit margin and growing revenue while not losing control over the customers.

What can the service providers do to maintain their control over the customer? IMS provides several mechanisms for the service provider to own the customer. The customer ownership is achieved through owning the home subscriber server (HSS) database that maintains the unique service profile for each end-user. Various attributes of the HSS database are shared with different applications, on an as needed basis. Since the information available in the HSS database constantly changes (as the end-users location, presence, preferences and endpoints change all the time), application service providers need to always go back to the HSS database. Other functions within the IMS framework such as CSCF (Call Session Control Function), MGCF (Media Gateway Services Function), MRF (Media Resource Function), Service Brokers, etc. provide for further control. Also, technologies such as Session Border Controllers enable the service provider to control over QoS attributes.

The beauty of IMS is that a service provider can introduce new applications, new application service providers and other network service provider partners without the fear of losing customer control to any of these potential future competitors. Think of IMS as the middleware on which other application developers can write applications using standard interfaces.

Tomorrow, we will talk about major data/telecom vendors and service providers plans to build their Next Generation Networks.

Tomorrow: Carriers and Vendors

[Ninad Mehta works at Lucent in New Jersey. The views expressed in this column are his own.]

TECH TALK Next-Generation Networks+T

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.