Momentum grows to meld tech platforms
By BRUCE MEYERSON
AP BUSINESS WRITER
NEW YORK -- As easy as it is to connect these days by Internet,
cellular, Wi-Fi and plain old telephones, the networks that make all
that possible can't communicate well with one another.
Technological standards vary from network to network. The traditional
phone system and the Internet use completely different protocols. Even
a single mobile provider's voice calls and data services are largely
separate and incompatible.
Now there's momentum building for a new standard that could enable
network operators to bridge these gaps, opening the way for melded
services such as simultaneous walkie-talkie and video exchanges
between a cell phone and a landline.
If only it were that simple.
The standard -- Internet Protocol for Multimedia Subsystems, or IMS
for short -- is only a springboard for convergence between future
services, not today's, nearly all of which would need to be adapted or
replaced over time to enable them to intermingle.
From simple phone calls, voice mail and call waiting, to wireless
text messaging and multimedia downloads, most existing telecom
services were designed to perform their specific functions as if
walled off into distinct silos on the network.
It matters little that most network traffic is now digital. For
example, despite the growth of phone services based on Internet
standards -- known as Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP -- most
wireline and wireless calls aren't transmitted in IP from start-to-
finish; calls get converted to traditional phone protocols on either
or both ends.
And while a growing number of non-voice services are IP-based,
interspersing their digital packets down a shared network pipe, many
applications still need to create a virtual "session," not unlike the
path of a regular phone call, between a user's device and the network.
IMS attempts to knock down these silos by introducing a common
interface for creating sessions. That way, data can be intertwined or
bridged across networks to different devices.
The technology has been generating buzz within the industry for
several years, but recently took a big leap off the drawing board with
a series of contract awards by some of the largest U.S. telephone
Earlier this month, BellSouth Corp. announced it was buying IMS
network systems from Lucent Technologies Inc. Two weeks earlier, AT&T
Inc. and Cingular Wireless, which is co-owned by AT&T and BellSouth,
also signed on to buy Lucent's IMS technology.
Lucent, still struggling through a migraine-size hangover from the
dot-com-telcom bust, acknowledged during its latest earnings report
that IMS wouldn't be generating any meaningful revenue in the near
future, but the contracts amount to a substantial endorsement of the
So far, only a smattering of foreign operators and one major
U.S. company, Sprint Nextel Corp., have begun deploying IMS, and
largely in a way that's invisible to customers.
Sprint, for example, rolled out a walkie-talkie service, ReadyLink,
for its cell phones in 2003 using a pre-standard version of IMS.
But ReadyLink differs little from the non-IMS "push-to-talk" from
other cell phone providers, offering none of the multimedia
combinations IMS can enable.
In fact, when Sprint's recently acquired sister company, Nextel, added
a new photo-sharing component to its pioneering push-to-talk service
earlier this month, it did so without the purported magic of IMS.
Like just about every existing cell phone application, Nextel's
walkie-talkie feature was essentially created in a software vacuum,
programmed with no emphasis on interoperability with other services.
So while IMS might make it easier to write a walkie-talkie program
from scratch and add new features down the road, Nextel has to
consider the millions of customers already using its very popular
"You don't want to fix something that's not broken," said Rob
Prudhomme of inCode, a wireless industry consulting firm. Carriers
"have a lot of services running before IMS, so their challenge is how
to migrate all the services they already have to IMS without incurring
a huge cost."
Likewise, though Sprint used IMS for ReadyLink, the company relied on
proprietary technologies for the photo services it launched a year
earlier, making integration into a "push-to-photo" capability like
Nextel's more complex.
Such complications make IMS a commitment best suited for major network
overhauls -- which may help explain why Sprint, AT&T and Cingular are
now venturing down that path. All three have placed big-money bets on
next-generation network technologies.
Sprint, which is rolling out a speedier wireless data technology
called EV-DO, expects to use IMS as the underpinning for some
ambitious new services bridging cell phones and televisions as part of
the company's new alliance with four of the nation's biggest cable TV
The new capabilities, expected to arrive by mid-2006, include using a
cell phone to view live TV broadcasts, check the program listings,
program a digital video recorder, or even watch programs stored on
that DVR. Back in the living room, set-top boxes might be equipped for
push-to-talk conversations with cell phone users.
Sprint also plans to use IMS to add desktop business capabilities to
At AT&T, the IMS foray comes amid a vast upgrade of the company's local
telephone network so that it can deliver television and an array of
interactive services using a new Internet-based technology called IPTV.
But in a telling sign, AT&T says IMS will not be the special sauce behind
the interactive features when the service first launches in 2006. Likewise,
Cingular is making its long-awaited foray into the push-to-talk market with
a service based on a non-IMS technology from Kodiak Networks.
"Most equipment has not yet been tested in a real-world setting, to
prove that it meets operators stringent requirements for reliability,"
analysts at Forrester Research say in new report that predicts IMS
won't be widely adopted until 2009. "Today, carriers like Sprint, that
are public about strategic IMS commitments, must deploy non-IMS
services until products exist and are proven."
Copyright 2005 Associated Press
Copyright 2005 Seattle P-I
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