After years of uncertainty over standards and compatibilities, IP Multimedia Subsystems (IMS) technology has come to a crossroads, its acceptance spurred by carriers that want to cut costs and embrace the promise of next-generation networks, but full-scale deployments hampered by a lack of applications. Many IMS proponents, however, insist IMS is set to boom this year, with initial deployments by fixed and mobile carriers in Asia, Europe and the Americas already rolling out.
'IMS is the big thing out there. It's being acknowledged by everyone,' says Harald Braun, CEO of Siemens Networks. 'The IMS concept and architecture have been sanctioned by all the major standards bodies, and its implementation will bridge both mobile and fixed networks, enabling the convergence of both applications and services.'
'All the vendors claim to have an IMS story,' says Vikram Saksena, CTO of Sonus Networks. 'This is the year you will be ferreting out what is real and what is not.'
In a recent report, Keith Nissan, an In-State analyst, predicts that IMS subscribers will grow from 10 million this year to more than 500 million by 2011. He says spending on IMS control layer equipment will hit $12 billion during the next four years. 'There is no debate over whether IMS will be deployed,' Nissan explains. 'The question is how rapidly operators will move beyond the fixed-point solutions being deployed currently.'
Virtually every major vendor in the telecom industry is making a big bet on IMS, which was originally developed for 3G carriers and now is viewed more broadly as a technology that allows users to seamlessly communicate across multiple networks.
Ronald Gruia, senior telecom analyst for Frost & Sullivan, expects the global IMS market to jump from an estimated $200 million to $300 million in 2006 to $10.4 billion in 2010. 'A lot of carriers are looking at IMS as a way to cut their costs, but where are the applications‾' asks Gruia. The answer will become apparent as operators move away from their legacy systems to NGNs. By embracing IMS solutions carriers will be able to reduce their capex spending by at least 5%-10% initially, and will realize huge savings in their opex as they move more applications to converged networks, says Gruia.
Gruia notes that many operators, especially in the wireless field, frequently gamble large amounts of money on introducing new applications to their users. The beauty of IMS, he contends, is that it will greatly lower the cost of these service introductions. 'IMS is going to reduce the cost of carriers being wrong,' he notes. 'It is going to allow carriers to fail a lot more often and a lot more cheaply.' The upside is that it will allow carriers to experiment by introducing new services to their markets. Still, he and many others expect the effect of IMS to be evolutionary, not revolutionary.
The main reason is that carriers around the world still take a cautious approach to IMS deployment. In-Stat's Nissan noted that fixed-line carriers are taking a fundamentally different approach than wireless carriers, which is creating confusion in the marketplace.
'The fixed-line carriers take a more transitional approach, a more pragmatic approach,' he explains. 'They are trying to offer new services that compete with companies like Vonage or Skype without completely abandoning their existing infrastructure.
CLECs and ILECs in the US and Europe often still provide Centrex services for business and enterprise clients and want to deploy IMS on an 'overlay basis,' adding softswitches and application servers to their existing networks, a much less expensive approach than scrapping those networks for an all-IP solution.
Wireless carriers, on the other hand, are more willing to deploy IMS 'as a means to differentiate themselves and retain their customers and generate new revenue streams.' Nissan adds the wireless segment views IMS as opening the door 'to a whole new generation of communication services that will move their customer to triple-play network solutions.'
'The fixed-line people have a completely different view of IMS than the mobile people,' he says. 'The mobile operators look at IMS as an evolution of the entire network, not just the services or applications.'
He adds that this fundamental difference may naturally resolve itself in markets such as China, where carriers such as China Netcom are migrating their long-distance backbone to an all-IP network that is more conducive to IMS solutions. But in many other markets, it has clouded the future of IMS and created uncertainty about the technology.
For example, last July a number of leading telecom heavyweights including Cisco, Lucent, Motorola, Nortel and Qualcomm joined with US carrier Verizon Wireless in a taskforce to evolve IMS to a new mobile network architecture called 'Advances to IMS' (or A-IMS), which they view as a pathway to the efficient roll-out of both SIP-based and non-SIP-based services.
'As we approach implementation planning, it became apparent that there are some practical, real-world issues that need to be addressed if we are to transparently and completely deploy and maximize the use of this new [IMS] architecture,' said Dick Lynch, CTO of Verizon Wireless.
Lynch and the others involved in the A-IMS initiative stress that they are committed to IMS as a 'core component,' but they identified a number of security, peering, interaction management and anchoring weaknesses in IMS that they believed needed to be addressed. Much of the concern centers around the need to bridge IP and legacy networks.
Many IMS proponents say such standards debates don't really weaken IMS' prospects, although they do seem to make an already confused situation somewhat more uncertain. 'It hit some areas that needed more work in IMS,' says Saksena of Sonus Networks, such as security and compatibility concerns with SIP and non-SIP applications. 'It helped make the standards group move to fill in those perceived gaps.'
'The debate helps the industry,' says Siemen's Braun. 'Everybody is trying to do something better. It helps improve the standard. The industry has to change if it wants to succeed.'
Braun believes 2007 will see true IMS deployments around the world by both wireless carriers and cable providers, especially in the US where the competition to offer triple- and quadruple-play services is especially intense. 'All the RFPs we see are going in that [the IMS] direction,' Braun says. 'This is the year there will be a transition from the lab to the field to real deployment of the technology.'
Still, even Braun sees the growing need for more, faster IMS-based application development. 'The IMS platform doesn't make sense at all without a fast application concept. It's the applications that set a fast revenue stream.'
Companies such as Siemens are working closely with third-party developers to get new applications to market quickly because that is what their carrier customers are demanding and, Braun adds, manufacturers can develop the applications 'at a fraction of the cost' the carriers could. Gaming applications, downloaded ringtones, voice-activated dialing and mobile-to-PC communication services are all examples of what some of these new applications might involve, he says.
However, Braun concedes that at the moment, IMS is caught in a sort of chicken-and-egg scenario with the carriers waiting for applications before they push aggressively forward and the application developers waiting to see if the technology gains market acceptance. Many believe this will be the year IMS finally breaks through, but will that happen before the optimistic predictions about its future break up‾
Ovum sees 'significant commitment' to IMS
Research firm Ovum reported in January that interest among service providers in IMS is growing after 'lots of disaffection for the IMS model on the marketing side' in 2006.
In a report by analyst Jean-Charles Doineau, Ovum identified 189 RFIs/RFPs opened by service providers for IMS solutions through November 2006. Ovum says 63 of those deals support more than one vertical application and almost half involve 'implementation of new application execution environments.' Nine of the deals are valued at $100 million each. 'These deals mark a very significant commitment from the telco industry to the IMS framework,' Ovum concludes.
In its report, Ovum surveyed 85 carriers worldwide about their plans for IMS and service delivery platforms (SDP) deployments. It found the main reason why IMS wasn't deployed last year was because the impact on business operations was 'too heavy to undertake.'
Ovum says carriers view SDP as a short-term investment, while IMS is increasingly viewed 'as a more strategic move, which affects a larger set of capabilities in the telco environment and consequently has a more important long-term impact.'