Seybold's take: Converged networks mean more than a bundled bill

At CTIA Wireless 2009 in Las Vegas earlier this month, I moderated a panel that addressed network and services convergence as well as how open networks will play into this new model. The panelists, all technology executives, represented two infrastructure vendors (Ericsson and Nokia Siemens Networks) and three U.S. network providers (AT&T, Sprint Nextel and Verizon Wireless). The consensus of the panel members was that there are many phases to the move toward convergence and that networks around the world are in various phases of what might be called the final or ultimate converged strategy.

As with many technology advancements, it is far easier to share a vision of where we will end up than to predict exactly how we will get there. The ultimate converged telecommunications provider will offer all of its services across all of its networks--wired, cable, fiber and/or wireless. These services will include much more than simply connectivity; they will be part of what might be called smart telecommunications services using smart devices over smart networks with smart back-end systems to blend everything together. Customers will have access to all of their data and services regardless of which type of network they are on at the moment, and regardless of the type of device they are using or carrying.

Also part of this vision is that the smarts in the network will route voice, text and data calls, and provide us with a single phone number. The network back-end will be smart enough to know which calls we want to take when and which we want delivered to a common voicemail/email/text messaging depository. It will also manage our services for the most efficient and cost effective methods of communicating.

In the meantime, our move toward convergence will start or has started with companies simply bundling services onto a single monthly bill, which saves customers money and provides the network with a hedge against churn since it is more difficult to churn from one network provider to another when all of your services are lumped together on a single bill.

Next will come the seamless marriage of services. Sprint is offering dual-mode devices to provide access to the Clearwire WiMAX network as well as to the Sprint voice and wireless broadband network. Verizon is bundling TV, wired phone and broadband on its fiber offering, and then adding wireless voice and data plans on top of that offering. Likewise, AT&T is including its wireless and wired networks as well as reselling satellite TV and other services as part of its bundle.

The final phases of convergence as depicted in this vision will take some time to implement and will occur in stages. First will come merging services into a seamless set of customer offerings, the ability to move from inside to outside while on a call, in the middle of watching TV, or downloading information from the web, and finally, the addition of smart back-end systems to manage all of these services.

Back-end systems that are moving from circuit-switched to IP-based, which is being referred to as IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem), will be the enablers for these last two stages of convergence. Once all of the systems are converted or built using IP back-end services, the convergence of disparate networks and services will become easier. But as the panel members cautioned, having an IP-based network does not mean that the interconnection of your network to other networks will be smooth and seamless. There is a big difference between running a standalone IP network and running an IP network that has to be able to communicate with numerous other IP networks. This will happen over time, but it will not be without some technology challenges and some missteps along the way.

While the panelists also agreed that the drive toward open networks making use of open devices is already happening in the United States and elsewhere, there are still some issues with how to protect a network from outside harm, how to provide a financially sound business model for network operators, and how quality of service and help and support will be impacted. One issue identified and discussed by the panelists was that the first call a customer will make will be to the network help and support desk, even if the network operator is acting only as a transport agent for an open device and open content. While all of the network operators are gearing up for this new wave of support calls, they are also aware that it will cost them more money to provide their customers with the level of support that is expected, even when the network operator has no control over the open devices or services.

Did this panel solve the world's problems when it comes to convergence and open access? No, but it did impart a better understanding of what convergence and open access are and explained how network operators and infrastructure suppliers are moving quickly toward a converged world--but also cautioned that it will be years, not months, before we achieve today's vision. And, by the way, today's vision could change and morph into something that isn't even on our radar.

Andrew Seybold is an authority on technology and trends shaping the world of wireless mobility. A respected analyst, consultant, commentator, author and active participant in industry trade organizations, his views have influenced strategies and shaped initiatives for telecom, mobile computing and wireless industry leaders worldwide.