Seeking true IPX

As the internet moves more and more into the mobile realm, mobile in turn is moving more and more into the era of all-IP networks. Much of this is being driven by the rise of LTE, which is ostensibly an all-IP proposition. More to the point, however, with worldwide mobile data traffic set to increase 13-fold between 2012 and 2017, reaching 11.2 exabytes per month, according to Cisco Systems’ Visual Networking Index, cellcos are under pressure to address data service delivery not only on their own networks, but beyond them via roaming services. Complicating the issue is the fact that most cellcos have to support roaming for all-IP services while also supporting legacy voice, SMS and data services at home and abroad.
The mobile industry’s default solution to the problem is IPX (IP Exchange), a concept spearheaded by the GSM Association that promotes common specs for end-to-end IP traffic delivery and quality of service that gives cellcos a cost-effective way to manage LTE services across networks.
When Telecom Asia first researched the topic of IPX in 2011, there was a lot of interest in IPX but comparatively little activity. At that time, the majority of operators were in the planning stages of IPX, with deployments expected in the next one to three years, pending the outcome of trials with partners, and to an extent depending on the progress of LTE rollouts, as many operators saw LTE as the major driver for IPX. Also, there was considerable debate over what counted as “true” IPX.
Things have progressed quite a bit in the last two years, as LTE rollouts have accelerated and as a number of IPX providers have arisen to help cellcos connect their LTE roaming traffic quickly without going through the laborious process of bilateral agreements.
In 2013 alone we’ve seen a lot of activity surrounding IPX. In July, for example, PCCW Global launched an HD video calling service for enterprise customers and carrier partners over its IPX. The month before that, BICS said it had performed the first intercontinental LTE roaming connection over IPX between Europe and Asia after enabling Swisscom’s LTE users to roam to South Korea, while Tata Communications and Telecom Italia Sparkle implemented what they billed as the world’s first LTE roaming peering between two IPX providers, enabling both carriers to exchange LTE roaming traffic on their respective IPX platforms.
SAP Mobile Services, which enabled the first commercial LTE roaming service between Globe Telecom and China Mobile Hong Kong late last year, entered into an IPX peering agreement in August with Etisalat UAE, the largest operator in the Middle East and Africa, to deliver LTE roaming traffic to all of its mobile operators.
Meanwhile, May was a particularly busy month for IPX activity:
  • The GSMA and i3forum launched a deployment initiative involving live commercial pilots for voice traffic over IPX conducted by Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telecom Italia, Telefónica, TeliaSonera and Vodafone. Both organizations said the pilots will “pave the way for the technical and commercial agreements necessary to use IPX to interconnect any voice services”, and provide “a major steppingstone toward interoperable communications services such as VoLTE and RCS.”
  • AMS-IX Hong Kong (established by Hutchison Global Communications and the Amsterdam Internet Exchange) launched an Inter-IPX service to allow IPX providers to peer IP traffic at the local level.
  • TeliaSonera International Carrier (TSIC) launched its IPX service, with 200 PoPs and support for TSIC roaming and signaling and VoIPX, with LTE signaling services and “a comprehensive suite of additional IPX services” to follow later in 2013.
  • Ooredoo in Qatar launched what it said was the first IPX enabled network in the Middle East using Tata Communications’ IPX+ platform. Voice is the first app to be run on the IPX, with signaling, data roaming (GRX and IPX) and LTE roaming on the service roadmap.
With the bustle of activity on the IPX front, we decided to revisit the state of IPX in the mobile sector and gauge its progress. To what extent are operators taking advantage of IPX services? What value do they see in IPX? What services are they running on IPX? What services would they like to run on it?
And if they’re not using IPX, what are they waiting for (besides perhaps an LTE license)? The short answer is: more operators are using IPX – but it’s still early days as operators work out their LTE strategies and try to sort through what is, at the moment, a confusing landscape of IPX services.
Key findings:
  • Over half of survey respondents say they are connected to an IPX.
  • Many operators are still at least one to three years away from deploying IPX – partly because it’s too soon, and partly because the IPX services market is cluttered with players sending mixed messages over just what does and doesn’t 
count as an IPX connection.
  • However, a number of operators feel 2013 will be the year IPX takes off as LTE proliferates, demand for roaming support increases and new services come online.
  • Voice remains the most common service running over IPX, but other up-and-coming services include SMS, video and GRX.
  • It’s still early days for LTE roaming and Diameter signaling, with a majority of operators looking at other options besides IPX to handle LTE roaming.
  • Many operators see potential value in VoLTE and are more likely to use IPX as an interconnect solution but still see VoLTE as a near-future technology.
  • Overall, operators have been slow to adopt RCS services, but deployments and trials are happening, and many see it as a potential source of new revenue and a ticket to competing with OTT services. However, the key word is “potential” – many operators aren’t yet ready to bank on RCS just yet.
  • A number of operators are looking at offering QoS in the RAN for latency-sensitive services like VoIP and video, but almost half of respondents have no plans to implement it, as the technology is too new. And wholesaling RAN QoS to OTT players is, for now, right out.
As LTE networks spread and demand for high-speed data services continues to expand rapidly, IPX deployments have accelerated. The IPX market has evolved significantly over the last two years, which is reflected in our survey that shows a majority of respondents (56%) are now connected to an IPX network compared to only 30% two years ago.
We also found a higher level of clarity among operators about the perceived benefits of moving to IPX. Top of the list is a private managed and secure network, followed by support for different commercial models, support for LTE roaming as well as lower costs. Most operators have developed specific requirements and expectations for IPX.
But as the markets and network deployments continue to evolve, so have the definition and complexity of the role that IPX plays. There are different points of view on what it is to be “IPX-ready” vs having a true IPX connection. Besides differences in terminology, some telcos are still in the evaluation stage because they feel the IPX market is cluttered and are waiting for consolidation and more clarity.
Despite these obstacles, the industry is definitely leaning toward one connection for multiple (if not all) services to both simplify interconnectivity and reduce costs. Voice of course is by far the dominant service running through IPX, with 80% of those that have connected to an IPX network running voice. But a wide range of other services is now also being connected via IPX, including SMS, video and Diameter signaling.
The IP nature of LTE means that IPX will pretty much be required for LTE roaming and interconnect (almost half of those surveyed said they will run LTE roaming over an IPX network). And although just 19% of operators currently connect all their roaming destinations via Diameter hub, that is likely to increase sharply as many in the industry say Diameter is necessary to quickly and cost-effectively scale and rebuild connections with roaming partners.
How each service is deployed over IPX varies and is still open for discussion. But the medium-term outlook is indeed bright, with half of those that haven’t yet connected to an IPX network planning to make the move over the next one to three years. That growth will be driven by the 53% of telcos that have yet to deploy LTE as well as the 46% of operators that are planning but haven’t launched VoLTE.
This article is a summary of TelecomsEMEA's research report "Navigating complexity: the quest for true IPX"