Carrier Evolution

Integrated Services Digital Network, B-ISDN (Asynchronous Transfer Mode and Open Systems Interconnect share one key trait. All three were, in their day, envisioned as the “next generation networks” that would replace the Public Switched Telephone Network.

ISDN and ATM achieved modest marketplace success, while OSI simply failed. Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol was supposed to be the interim or legacy network that OSI was supposed to replace. Obviously, IP won.

Some of us would argue that those three examples show a glaring inability on the part of global telecom executives to create and then popularize any “next generation network.” Which brings us to IP Multimedia Subsystem and Rich Communications Suite.

Up to this point, IMS adoption has been less than many had hoped for, as service provider executives struggle to justify adoption. RCS is a mobile framework building on IMS that hopes to achieve greater success.

One way or the other, IMS-style or RCS frameworks will be adopted. The issue is whether what becomes the market standard is “pure” IMS or RCS, or only something that offers the features of IMS and RCS. Right now, it remains an open question how those or other protocols will develop.

But it is a point of historical interest that AT&T has asked the Federal Communications Commission for permission to halt sales of frame relay and and Asynchronous Transfer Mode services on or after May 31, 2012, with FCC permission, because of declining customer demand.

For those of you with long memories, ATM was once thought to be the “next generation network” or the “network of the future.”

It isn’t that standards are unimportant. It’s just that the industry hasn’t been very good at turning proposed standards into workable and useful “real world” frameworks fast enough to be useful.

But network modernization and protocol changes are not the big story here. The big story is that the global telecom business has a poor track record where it comes to visualizing and then commercializing any “next generation network.” ATM was supposed to be that next generation network. It clearly failed. The “IP everything” network displaced the OSI framework.

A betting person might argue that the chances either actually is adopted widely, and soon, are slim. Worse than that, the odds of marketplace failure are substantial. One reason is that future requirements are not under the full control of global carriers anymore.

In the past, when voice was the service that mattered, carriers could adopt new generations of switching in a closed environment, which is one reason switch platform transitions have never “failed” in the market.

These days, all services exist in open and non-captive ecosystems, where there is less a carrier can do “in a closed way.” In fact, most parts of the ecosystem do not even want to deal with any protocol complexity in the network and transport layers. They just use IP and want to assume all the rest of the network layers just work.

From a service provider perspective, IMS and RCS have clear advantages, allowing service providers to rapidly create new services that use features of the voice and messaging core networks. But application providers might not see the benefits as being so key.

These days, there are lots of ways to integrate voice and text messaging services, for example, without using IMS or RCS. In fact, IMS and RCS are ways carriers hope to match the ways application providers can integrate the “Web” or mobile apps, with voice and messaging services.

The other issue is that the application environment changes much faster than global standards that get traction can be put into place. It is a toss up whether new protocols are created most often by the market, or by the standards bodies.

That will probably be true for RCS and IMS as well.