Nostalgic Status Report

In a previous life I spent a few years doing strategic planning at a telecommunications company. One of my responsibilities was to contribute to the long term network evolution plan that would be the roadmap for key network investments and build outs. This was back in the late 1990’s.

One of the things we talked about way back then was a concept called IP Multimedia Subsystem, or IMS. IMS for us was the core of the next generation converged public telephone system. Creating it was our holy grail. It would allow you to build a network that would be access independent and support rich media communications. An IMS core meant that the cellular network, your home phone, and a soft phone on your PC are all using the same system. Not simply interworked through gateways but actually the same system. Applications created for one are available to all.

Without getting into the how’s (we’ll leave that the the phone companies) an IMS based network could allow you to do things like start a phone call, promote it to a video call, then as part of the same conversation open a window and transfer some files to a co-worker. How about being able to see the presence of your brother in Vancouver before you make the call and get his voicemail? Or selecting to simultaneously ring my home phone and my cabin phone? Better yet how about it the call follows me and rings the cabin phone automatically once I get the the cabin?

Many of these types of features are now available in today’s VoIP PBX systems. There is also a growing list of features like these in services such as Google Voice and Google+ and Microsoft’s Lync/Skype integration. It’s not hard to see why telco’s consider these guys as the next big competitors.

But as I said, that was the late 1990’s. At the time I don’t think I appreciated how far ahead we were looking. The Google machine tells me that IMS was developed by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) as a packet switched Next Generation Network for cellular networks in 1998/99. The dates elude me now by I am pretty sure we had it in our plan as early as 1997. If that is so then it must have been based on some pre-standard work.

Today I find myself working at the very same telephone company, but this time in the role of a unified communications consultant. Yesterday I sat in on a presentation by my successors in the planning department for an update on IMS. To my great chagrin I hear that the world is still in early days of deploying this technology. Some companies in North America and Europe have deployed, removed and redeployed systems trying to find the right mix of vendors. Others are just in their initial deployment stages. My employer is at the lab stage; testing and validating and developing fulfillment and assurance processes. Launch of commercial services based on our shiny new IMS core won’t be for another year.

Wow. Our network strategic plan has taken 15 years to come to fruition. A large part of that time has been waiting for the technology to mature; perhaps only the last couple of years could be blamed on other factors. Most of the people in the room have no notion that we talked about this so long ago. It’s all very exciting and they chomp at the bit to sell the new services. I do too, but a part of me is feeling maybe a little old that the others have no idea this isn’t “new” and maybe a bit proud too. Not too many arrows shot today will land as close to the target 15 years from now as our plan did. A little late and $3.5B in capital investment later, but right on the mark.

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2 Replies to “Nostalgic Status Report”

  1. Hey Mel,

    Nostalgic indeed!

    I remember being at an ISS conference in Dallas in 1996 and hearing the term soft switch for the first time. Within 6 months Nortel invited us to a special presentation where all attendees had to sign a non-disclosure agreement, and they presented their road map for their HMS (hosted multimedia server) product. HMS was, as you suggested, pre-standards development but took only minor tweaking once the standards caught up.

    I suspect that there have been lots of similar developments that were “just a hair” too far ahead of their time, and hence fell by the wayside to await the right circumstances, or in some cases just died . But for the life of me I still don’t understand why those enhanced services were not successful at the time. I know anyone lucky enough to be on the tech trial was very sad to see it end. Obviously the mobile side was not where it is today and there were LAN issues etc., etc., but even so I still am baffled as to why it was not successful then.

    It will be interesting to see how well it does this time when faced with a much more diversified and tech savvy customer base that is more familiar with Skype than Centrex.

    While you are checking the arrows, how about FTTH? That outcome was perhaps more obvious other than maybe the timing aspect.

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