and an Opportunity for Mobile Operators A sober analysis of the implications of VoIP on mobile operators business

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1 Whitepaper February 2005 VoIP A Threat and an Opportunity for Mobile Operators A sober analysis of the implications of VoIP on mobile operators business As the trend of All-IP is making its way through the telecom industry, new ways of using IP networks are found. Transporting voice over IP (VoIP) has risen as one of the most promising applications. Today there are no doubts, despite technical challenges, that the VoIP technology will have major impact on both business models and implementation of services in future networks, regardless if they are fixed, mobile, private or public. Most threatened by the development are traditional PTTs who see their cash cow business from the fixed access network infrastructure being challenged by cable TV providers and broadband service providers entering the last mile market. Long distance calls are also made over the Internet bypassing the per-minute charges of fixed operators. The technology opens clear opportunities for new entrants on the market. Not as clear are the impacts for mobile operators. This paper outlines the opportunities and the threats that mobile operators are faced with from the emerging VoIP technology. Mobile operators need to understand these aspects to better position themselves in the increasingly competitive mobile market. About Northstream Northstream provides strategic technology and business advice to the global wireless industry. Northstream has assembled a multinational team with some of the world s best experts and analysts on wireless communication and technology that supports many of the industry s leading companies in their strategic and tactical challenges towards continued growth. For more information please visit us at:

2 VoIP a threat and an opportunity for mobile operators 2 Contents The brief VoIP history... 2 VoIP is a service enabler for mobile operators... 2 Push-to-Talk over Cellular... 2 IP Multimedia Subsystem... 3 VoIP in mobile core networks... 3 The battle of mobile minutes... 3 VoIP used over unlicensed spectrum... 3 VoIP over Cellular Packet Data... 4 VoIP another hyped technology?... 4 Conclusions... 6 The brief VoIP history The idea of transporting voice in IP packets was introduced in the mid 90 s, leading to early product attempts by e.g. Vocaltec for free PC-to-PC calls over the Internet. The uptake was modest, at best, since the performance of modems and the Internet was poor, as was the penetration of Internet enabled computers. Later, networking companies started to show interested in VoIP and the primary target was to use the technology within enterprises. For years, large players like Cisco have been heavily pushing the technology primarily in the enterprise field, but also expanding to other areas including carriers and service providers. Today, the technology has spread into most markets. The prerequisites have changed considerably in many aspects, including broadband Internet access, PC penetration, technology maturity etc. Along with fulfilment of the prerequisites, the amount of innovation around VoIP has grown enormous. There is a steady flow of companies providing more or less unique offerings to the industry based on the underlying VoIP technology. VoIP is a service enabler for mobile operators The VoIP technology is the foundation and enabler for many new service offerings specifically targeted to mobile operators customers. Push-to-Talk over Cellular In parallel with the massive rollouts of 3G services, Push-to-Talk services are now reaching the European and Asian markets. The role model has been the American operator Nextel Communications. With the performance of Nextel in mind, it is of little surprise that mobile operators around the world are eager to tap the opportunities this new service brings. Nextel Communications Nextel s Push-to-Talk service has been available since It is based on Motorola s proprietary network architecture called iden. Nextel s churn rate is the lowest on the US market and their ARPU is the highest (23%, or 13 USD higher than the nation s average). Nextel has been heavily focused on small business customers, where the Push-to-Talk service has been attractive. The impressive figures of ARPU and churn cannot only be recognized to the Push-to-talk service but also the targeted market segment.

3 VoIP a threat and an opportunity for mobile operators 3 Push-to-Talk can be implemented as a circuit switched service. Most implementations, including the upcoming standard, however use VoIP over packet data networks like GPRS or CDMA 1X. Packet data networks are argued to be ideal for the Push-to-Talk behaviour where users have scattered conversations over long periods. Operators are also interested in finding better ways to utilise their packet data investment due to limited success with non-voice services. The US has been showing the way in Push-to-Talk services. Asian and European operators are about to follow, with numerous launches already announced. Despite the promising benchmarks from the US, a variety of potential hurdles need to be overcome and the uptake on the new markets is far from certain. First of all, the technology is immature or rather the standards are not yet ready and products will most likely not be interoperable until early Secondly, the impressive figures from the Nextel service are based on Push-to-Talk being a differentiator for the service provider. What will the figures look like when all operators offer the service? Finally, cultural and social differences might affect the uptake of the service, e.g. exemplified by that the walkie-talkie like service typically uses the loudspeaker in the phones for communication and is thus not overly discreet. IP Multimedia Subsystem Future Push-to-Talk solutions will be based on the upcoming OMA Push-to-Talk over Cellular (PoC) standard. It is designed to make use of the future IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) architecture for realtime applications, as is the hope for many other new services. IMS specifies a framework on which new services can be developed. The IMS architecture utilises most of the protocols that are associated with VoIP for realtime communication. Such protocols are SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) and RTP for media streaming. Many new services based on IMS are foreseen. Examples are combinational services (combinations of video, messaging and telephony), Instant Messaging, interactive games etc. As the technical framework is in place, the challenge will be to create user friendly services with true customer value and high adoption rates. VoIP in mobile core networks The future success of mobile operators does not only lie in the customer embracement of new services. Operational excellence will be more and more important as competition continues to intensify. The VoIP (and IP) technology is an opportunity for savings on both CAPEX and OPEX for service providers, most notably in the mobile core networks. By adopting VoIP in combination with a softswitch architecture in the mobile operator s core networks where voice and signalling are transported over one IP network a more flexible and cost efficient operation could be achieved. The use of VoIP in mobile core networks is not a new concept and the value proposition has been questioned, particularly the argument of transport efficiency, since many MNOs have overcapacity in their transmission networks. The long term move to a softswitched architecture is however not debated, although the timing is uncertain. New services, as those based on IMS, will eventually benefit from such architecture. The battle of mobile minutes Although the VoIP technology provides new opportunities for mobile operators, the development could also pose substantial threats. The VoIP technology, if not understood and addressed correctly, could considerably hurt the mobile operator s voice business. VoIP used over unlicensed spectrum The use of mobile phones is increasing in all geographical markets. The trend that mobile phone calls cannibalize fixed phone calls is clear and many customers choose to keep only one subscription: the mobile one discussed in Northstream whitepapers 1. As a natural result, many of the calls made on a mobile phone are made from a fixed location like an office or a home. Merrill Lynch reports indicate that as much as 80% of mobile-originated calls are made from either the office or from the home. A fixed operator observing this evolution may feel threatened. VoIP over unlicensed spectrum opens an opportunity for a fixed operator to add mobility to its service portfolio. Wireless LAN and Bluetooth are both wireless technologies that make use of unlicensed spectrum. These technologies can be used to provide telephony with limited mobility, using VoIP. The ambitions vary and technology evangelists are promoting the use of unlicensed spectrum to cover metropolitan areas. Others see the technology as a replacement for DECT cordless-phone systems at specific locations. However, correctly implemented and with the appropriate 1 : Fixed-to-mobile Substitution in Europe and Growing the mobile voice market

4 VoIP a threat and an opportunity for mobile operators 4 Obstacles to overcome to use VoIP over unlicensed spectrums Northstream work shows that there are several obstacles to overcome before a mass roll-out and adoption of VoIP over unlicensed spectrum can take place: Availability of handsets at reasonable prices Fixed operators ability to subsidise handsets Creation of a bundled service offering Technical obstacles at end user premises outside the control of the operator Quality of the service Usability and user interfaces handset support, a service that combines licensed and unlicensed spectrum could be achieved. A fixed operator could operate a VoIP over wireless service that is used when within coverage of specific access points. Once outside the coverage, the mobile network is used. This way, the fixed operator could capture parts of the 80% of calls mentioned above that are placed at home or in the office. The approach appears compelling to some and threatening to others. The area is intricate and both fixed and mobile operators should carefully consider their options in expanding their business while protecting their own assets. The technology provides opportunities but without an appropriate analysis the risks cannot be reliably assessed. A more thorough study of this area can be found in Northstream s recent whitepaper Operator options beyond 3G that can be downloaded from VoIP over Cellular Packet Data The well known Skype service visualises how the innovative Internet community quickly adopt to new rules. What would the mobile operator s business model look like if a similar service was implemented on 3G phones, totally bypassing the per minute charges and termination fees. Since the charging models for 3G data are often flat fee (with high caps), Skype The Skype service is a peer to peer telephony service created by the inventors of Kazaa. It provides free VoIP telephony between the users without relying on central infrastructure. The Skype client has been downloaded by more than 50 million users. The voice quality and simplicity has impressed on many users and industry experts. phone calls could be placed without any marginal cost to the user. Mobile operators and the mobile community can influence the future business models, but developing and controlling the evolution of services put very high requirement both on technology and more importantly business (interconnect) agreements. The services have to be defined and interoperable, and charging schemes has to be developed and agreed upon throughout the industry. It is not impossible, but the fresh experiences from GPRS roaming agreements and MMS interoperability in mind are not forecasting a smooth development. If the mobile industry fails in controlling the evolution, the Calling Party Pays -paradigm could collapse and mobile operators would have to rely on revenues from data. Unleashed would also be the Internet community s innovative forces in providing new services which could become the ultimate success to mobile data services. VoIP another hyped technology? The strive for new revenues and opportunities within the telecom industry leads most often to over-expectations of new technologies. This hype-phenomenon can be illustrated by the Hype Curve as defined by Gartner (see Figure 1 below); VoIP is no exception. The relevant question is to what extent the VoIP technology is hyped, and based on that, what expectation should we put on the new opportunities. Treating VoIP as one single technology is misleading and we thus need to consider various applications differently to understand where on the Hype Curve they reside. In the Hype Curve we have plotted the different VoIP applications discussed in this paper, based on their maturity and visibility. The position is motivated in Figure 1.

5 VoIP a threat and an opportunity for mobile operators 5 Visibility Push-to-Talk over Cellular VoIP over unlicensed spectrum The Hype Curve, as defined by Gartner, maps the technology along a typical path with respect to visibility and maturity. In the Hype Curve a technology passes through four different stages before reaching the final stage where the real benefits of the technology have been confirmed and widely accepted. From this stage, broad adoption can take off. The hype occurs earlier where the visibility of the technology is very high but the maturity is still low. The expectations are heavily inflated which leads to a steep decline in attention as the expectations are not met. Different technologies can move along the time axis in different speeds. IP Multimedia Subsystem VoIP over cellular packet data VoIP in mobile core networks Technology Peak of Inflated Trough of Slope of Plateau of Trigger Expectations Disillusionment Enlightenment Productivity Maturity VoIP opportunities and threats mapped into the Hype Curve VoIP over cellular packet data This illustrates a possible future service deployment based on VoIP rather than a technology itself. Due to lack necessary support in handsets etc, high industry attention has not yet materialized. IP Multimedia Subsystem The technical framework for IMS is defined and some initial sales announcements have been made. The PR activity is however more visible than actual implementations. IMS is therefore immature and years from wide scale deployment. VoIP over unlicensed spectrum Slightly more mature than IMS, the use of VoIP in unlicensed spectrum is soon seeing its first deployments. There is however a high chance the technology is still immature and unable to meet the set expectations. Push-to-Talk over Cellular Second to 3G launches, Push-to-Talk over Cellular is the service that creates most interest among analysts in the GSM community. With immature products, no real-world experience, and a lack of implemented standards, there is a great risk that the expectations are inflated and that visibility will eventually drop. Mobile operators could however attempt to bridge this gap through careful service design and by communicating reasonable expectations to customers. Mass adoption of Push-to-Talk over Cellular cannot start prior 2006 due to time required for technology and in particular for terminal base rollout. VoIP in mobile core networks - Equipment for softswitched architecture based on VoIP has been around for many years, but expectations have been inflated. The hype wave has now passed and adoption could be expected, although in a slow pace. Figure 1 - The Hype Curve with different VoIP applications plotted

6 VoIP a threat and an opportunity for mobile operators 6 Mature Technology VoIP in mobile core networks Push-to-Talk over Cellular Threat Opportunity VoIP over unlicensed spectrum IP Multimedia Subsystem VoIP over cellular packet data Immature Technology Figure 2 - Threat/opportunity to mobile operators vs. technology maturity of different VoIP applications. The exact layout of this matrix depends on market specific inputs and should be recomposed for each operator before acting based on the information. Conclusions This paper has outlined the different possibilities and threats that the VoIP technology offers to mobile operators. Figure 2 summarises the different VoIP applications and their relative threat/opportunity to mobile operators. Fortunately for mobile operators, the threats posed to their business are all less mature than the opportunities. VoIP over unlicensed spectrum is the clearest threat, but also VoIP over cellular packet data could become a considerable threat unless managed correctly. Push-to-Talk proposes the most important near-term opportunity. VoIP is an evolution in the way service providers implement the services rather than a revolution in user behaviour. Contact Northstream has studied all aspects of VoIP from a mobile operator perspective. Please contact us if you would like to find out more about this or about our company and the services we provide. us at or call us at (SE)

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