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Microsoft punts telco platform

Connected Services Framework

3GSM As wireline and wireless operator move towards converged, all-IP networks - capable of delivering advanced multimedia services - the software at the core of the systems will give its provider huge impact on the carrier market. Microsoft is making a bid for some of this business with its CSF platform, which supports integration of services via XML, and could bring Windows into carrier land by the back door. However, it seems to offer little compared to full standards-based IMS, which is dominated by the network equipment vendors. Early adopters such as MMO2 and Telecom Italia are starting to use IMS, and its services should generate significant revenues from 2006.

One of the overriding themes of this week’s 3GSM conference in Cannes, France was, predictably, convergence of networks around IP to deliver multimedia services. New standards were proposed for wireless-wireline integration; potential consumer offerings – notably mobile television – were demonstrated; while the key standard for delivering multimedia effectively over all-IP networks, IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS), raised its profile still further. Finally, with most of the focus on open technologies, Microsoft is seeking a piece of the pie with its own framework for delivering IP services, aiming to gain the same kind of foothold with the cellular operators that it has achieved, through its IPTV platform, with some major broadband providers.

It is hard to see where the place is for Microsoft’s new service creation solution, called Connected Services Framework (CSF) for carriers. Many of its claims are similar to those for IMS – namely, that it allows wireline or mobile carriers to create and deliver new multimedia services rapidly and flexibly across any form of IP connection. Like IMS, Microsoft’s software incorporates management of sessions, profiles, identity and other elements of multimedia service delivery that are core to IMS.

But CSF is far more limited in remit, being constrained to web services such as hosted email, rather than real time services like VoIP based on the SIP protocol. And, naturally, it requires Microsoft platforms such as Windows 2003 and SQL Server to run.

The software giant claims CSF is designed to run alongside IMS, not supplant it, and that it uses standards too, notably XML web services, which tie together different applications and services on different parts of the network. But it is still difficult to see how valuable this extra capability could be, when IMS supports such a vast array of functionality in its huge range of software stacks. And its openness is only skindeep – it does support interface standards, such as the TeleManagement Forum’s Shared Information and Data (SID), so that it can work with the telcos’ existing billing and operations software.

But in its heart, it is a method of introducing Microsoft’s core technologies, such as SQL Server, into a new market – the company has been working with telcos such as BT to create carrier class versions of many of its products. There still seems little incentive, though, for the increasingly Linux-oriented world of carrier servers to invest from scratch in the Windows family.

Some are prepared to try though, notably first users BT and Bell Canada. Their use of the system indicates where its likely market could lie, outside of Microsoft’s own grand claims for multimedia consumer service delivery. BT – already a heavy Microsoft user and R&D partner – will use CSF to provide hosted application services for small and medium sized businesses, which will be bundled with access lines.

A new approach to bundling, in a growth user base often ignored by carriers, could generate a decent new revenue stream and the relatively simple services required by small companies – compared to the technically complex demands of consumer applications - will probably be well served by CSF, which should be cost effective and simple to deploy compared to IMS, though supporting only a fraction of its functionality.

Key to such applications will be the Service Catalog and Service Logic Orchestration modules. These allow developers to take two or more simple services and integrate them using XML to make a more complex one that will generate greater revenue.

CSF will also be suitable for operators that are not looking to take the full IMS plunge yet but wish to deliver some new applications more easily than with current platforms. Microsoft said that Celcom Malaysia will also use CSF, to deliver email and instant messaging.

IMS developments

Meanwhile, the full blown IMS gained a great deal of attention at 3GSM as it consolidates its claim to be the linchpin of all-IP multimedia, the great revenue hope for network operators in the second half of the decade. IMS is a modular system based on IP and SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) that provides a dynamic architecture in which new services can be created, expanded or contracted in line with demand, and removed easily. It works across multiple fixed and wireless links and provides an SIPbased control layer between the transport and services layers, also allowing end users to initiate multiple services from within a single communication session.

It will be one of the critical technology elements that successful vendors must have to prepare themselves for convergence and 4G, and many of the big names were setting out in Cannes to assure the world that they were not being left behind by pioneers like Lucent (see Wireless Watch February 3 2005).

Lucent itself has added a 3G video gateway and integrated six new software technologies, developed in its Bell Labs R&D arm, into its IMS to enhance its ability to deliver triple play services comprising voice, data and video, all with a common look and feel whatever the underlying network. Nortel is catching up, teaming with Motorola, IBM, Sonim and MetaSolv Software to create a complete IMS hardware/software platform called Converged Multimedia Services. And Motorola also demonstrated its IMS, showing off VoIP, video calls and ringback tones, as well as packet switch to circuit switch calling, flexible alerting, voicemail, unified messaging and mobile conferencing.

Sprint and MMO2 were among the first cellcos to trial IMS – with a clear understanding of its potential to underpin multinetwork systems in future encompassing WiMAX and other technologies. But many others are making the move, especially in Europe. Telecom Italia Mobile said it would use IMS technology from Ericsson in addition to its existing system from Nokia, while the two Scandinavian giants are also working with TeliaSonera to develop IMS-based services. France Telecom is testing Siemens’ IMS – also the choice of MMO2 – in its Orange cellco and Wanadoo ISP subsidiaries.

Ericsson’s chief technology officer, Hakan Eriksson, was keen to present IMS as the technology that would be the savior of 3G. The making of 3G will be delivering the mobile triple play, he said in a speech, and for this it will need the HSDPA upgrade – a ‘3.5G’ software enhancement that increases downlink speed to, initially, 5Mbps – and the flexibility of IMS.

This combination would turn the cellphone into an “indispensable hub connecting home and office devices” with data reception capacity suited to television and the triple play. He forecast a near future when the office, home and phone would be linked through the IMS core network and would allow, for instance, a user to call up his home TV and view a conventional program, or a unicast aimed specifically at the mobile video market.

Of course, all these points apply just as well to any technology supporting IMS and mobility, and Eriksson conceded that, in the first years, it would be VoIP rather than television that would make IMS a success.

That is not deterring the suppliers from getting highly excited about mobile television. In Cannes, Nokia showed off the industry's first live TV-to-mobile demonstration with digital signals made available by Telediffusion de France (TDF), which plans to run trials of the DVD-H (Digital Video Broadcasting-Handheld) technology, and of WiMAX, this year. The TV content, encoded in H.263, was encapsulated in IP data, and then broadcast using the MPEG-2 transport layer.


Also focused on convergence is the newly formed International Packet Communications Consortium, which aims to define the reference architecture for converged networks covering DSL, fiber, cable, UMTS, CDMA, Wi-Fi and WiMAX.

The companies behind the initiative are Alcatel Alsthom, Brooktrout, Cisco, Convedia, eLEC, Sonus, Tekelec, Time Warner Telecom and UTStarcom. Other vendors will be invited to join, and the body will also work with related standards bodies such as the IETF, IEEE and 3GPP.

Open standards really are the name of the game in convergence and multimedia services. Microsoft would do well to remember that if it really wants a significant role in the telecoms market.

Copyright © 2004, Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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