Time for a reality check

When it comes to over-promising on the capabilities of new technologies people in the communications industry are serial offenders. To be fair the wireline sector is not too bad, but the wireless business is definitely hooked on hype. Just cast your mind back to the expectations raised over technologies such as WAP, GPRS and 3G and you will get the picture.

Before a new technology has even finished the standardization process the whole wireless industry is trumpeting to the media that it is the greatest breakthrough since the wheel. The cold wind that blew through the industry after the dot-com meltdown was supposed to have brought with it a new realism, with everyone promising 'no more over-promising.' But it seems the industry's addiction to hype was not dead, only dormant. One whiff of a glamorous new technology and like a retired racehorse the head is up, the nostrils are flared and we are off in pursuit of another dream.

Today's hot new vision is IMS -- the IP Multimedia Subsystem (as a slight digression, when is the industry going to let marketeers name new technologies rather than engineers‾). IMS has become the wireless industry's New Jerusalem. At the recent 3GSM World Congress virtually every product and service on display was billed as IMS ready or IMS capable, even down to the smallest widget.

IMS is being hailed as the panacea for all the telecoms industry's problems. Vendors want IMS to be the answer to the decline in infrastructure sales as the industry evolves to 3G. For mobile network operators IMS could usher in the promised land of ubiquitous multimedia data services, which will deliver new revenue streams to bolster falling voice ARPU. And for wireline operators IMS could offer the opportunity, through fixed mobile convergence, to reclaim the traffic they have lost to mobile over the last five years. All this hype has raised expectations to an absurdly high level. Operators are apparently asking their suppliers when their networks can be upgraded to IMS, anticipating the answer 'as soon as you like.'

This is not to downplay the significance of IMS. Undoubtedly it is a very capable technology that could deliver important benefits by enabling more rapid service creation and delivery, with reduced capex and opex.

The point is that no technology could possibly provide the 'all things to all men' solutions that the industry is expecting. Neither, as many people seem to think, is IMS an instant fix, rather it is an incremental evolution. Certainly along the way operators will be able to deploy individual IMS network elements, which will enable them to deliver particular services such as push to talk and VoIP.

But realization of the full IMS vision is some way down the road. Informa Telecoms and Media expect investment in IMS equipment to peak in 2010, when the total spend will have reached $4.5 billion, not  a huge amount in comparison to overall industry investment.

The most interesting statistic from the Informa report, however, is not the amount of spend, it is the number of IMS users that are forecast for 2011; 39 million on fixed networks and 188 million on mobile.


With the total number of wireless customers expected to be more than three billion in the same timescale, this level of penetration really puts the IMS hype into proportion.

So the reality check is; yes, IMS is a good thing that could offer major benefits to wireless and wireline carriers. But it is not going to happen overnight, and it will not deliver all those benefits at once. The wireless industry suffers from short-term memory loss, making it incapable of remembering the problems it created for itself by hyping up technologies in the past. So anytime anyone is about to start praising IMS to the skies, whisper in their ear 'remember 3G.'