FEATURE: Inside Mobile and Wireless: 3GSM: Migration Toward All IP Networks

Monthly Columnist Gerry Purdy offers his analysis of the mobile market

3GSM: Migration Toward All IP Networks

One of the hot topics at last month's 3GSM World Congress in Barcelona was the future of IP networks. Not all wireless networks use IP in their network infrastructure so this topic has far-reaching implications for all wireless operators. Here's why:

The wireless industry was created differently than the Internet. Wireless operators built their own network to provide (first) voice and (second) data. Their focus was to provide quality of service, competitive differentiation and reasonable pricing. They created these networks for the objective of serving their customers, not serving the entire world like Web-based companies. But, many years and billions of capital dollars later, we find we're in the situation where these "silos" of infrastructure provide a "walled garden" to their subscribers. You can't blame the wireless operator for looking out for their own interests. 

But 20 years later a new challenge has developed. Many large enterprise customers and third-party developers want to develop a single application that can run across a number of different wireless networks. They want to be efficient in the cost, deployment and support of these applications. They want users to have the same experience no matter which network the application is using. And wireless operators feel compelled to provide such support to retain customers.

Because of this, operators are encouraged to migrate to a next-generation IP-based wireless infrastructure, which is called IP multimedia subsystem, or IMS.

At 3GSM, I moderated a panel that assessed the migration toward IP networks. David King, chief technology officer at Logica CMG explained that wireless operators will incrementally migrate to IP networks and that some applications may stay "non IP" for quite some time because there is not any benefit to convert them. 

Anders Wasterlid, vice president, products, devices and OMTP chairman at wireless operator O2, talked about next-generation IP-based wireless messaging. His primary point is that operators should separate disparate messaging applications such as SMS, MMS, IM, email under the new IP network infrastructure and migrate toward providing users with a single threaded experience. This has tremendous implications for improving the user experience. Instead of having to enter one application such as SMS and then another like IM, you'll instead have users stay in their messaging thread with a friend no matter what kind of sub-application is running. 

Here's a summary of some of the highlights of the panel discussion:

* IMS will assist developers in writing one application that can then operate on multiple networks. This will lower the cost of application and services development.

* Mobile IP will finally become a reality where users will be able to keep one application open while they cross from one network to another.

* Most feel that the migration to IP networks in wireless operators will begin to happen during the next year.

* There were different opinions on the how or when we'll see dual-mode handsets with WiFi and cellular radios allowing VoIP calls to happen when on a WiFi network. Some panelists felt that system latency will make such calls problematic.  

* Everyone seemed to agree that the mobile phone is becoming the primary office telephone, whether it's using cellular or WiFi to make the call. Today, it's more about simply making cellular calls in the office, but in the future, it will be about accessing enterprise IP/PBX functionality as well.   

I think that wireless operators are going to migrate some applications to IP and then leave others that don't require IP to remain as they are today. Most, if not all, new networks, applications and services will be created using IP and provide benefits to all members of the wireless ecosystem.  Eventually, wireless networks should behave just like the rest of the Internet, but it's going to be many years before that happens. 

J. Gerry Purdy, Ph.D., is the vice president and chief analyst, mobile & wireless at Frost & Sullivan.