The WebRTC conundrum

There were no mobile network operator CEOs or CFOs, as far as I’m aware, attending the two-day WebRTC Global Summit in London earlier this month. And if any did turn up, none gave a presentation or was part of a discussion panel.

Operator representation came mainly from the ranks of technology experts. Alongside suppliers and so-called ‘OTT’ players, it was they who talked about WebRTC potential and what impact it might have on the telecoms industry.

Top telco management, had they attended, may well have shuffled uncomfortably in their seats.

For one thing, from the presentations I heard, there was plenty of enthusiasm for a web-based platform that could potentially hasten declines in operators’ core voice and messaging revenue – at least in the short term.

Enrico Marocco, who leads WebRTC development at Telecom Italia, described it as the “most powerful tool we’ve ever had for communication services”.

Patrice Crutel, senior network architect at Bouygues Telecom, talked positively about WebRTC as a driver for unified communications – access on any device, anywhere. If the mobile phone is switched off, say, Wi-Fi might kick in and direct the call onto a SIM-less tablet.

By using a web-based platform, where real-time voice and video is enabled by a browser – so eliminating the need for software downloads or plug-ins – mobile operators can dramatically extend their reach (although bean counters in the boardroom might balk at SIM-less devices skipping national and international call charges).

Crutel, along with many other conference speakers, envisaged telephony and communications evolving into something very different from what it is today – helped in no small part by making it easier for innovators and app developers, courtesy of a WebRTC platform, to use network APIs for real-time communication.

Scenarios were outlined of browser-to-browser communication between customers and online retailers, where “contextual knowledge” is shared. Customer service agents would have a deeper understanding of the customer ‘calling in’ by being aware of website activity (rather than just relying on basic details associated with the phone number). Data information, too, could be shared in the call session.

The technology man from Bouygues said it took just a matter of weeks to come up with a WebRTC proof of concept for enabling voice over TV via the set-top box. The possibilities, it seemed, were endless.

From a C-level perspective, however, the WebRTC business case no doubt looks a bit fuzzy. Yes, there’s the prospect of making more money by ‘renting’ network APIs to app developers, but giving a leg up to OTT ‘rivals’ also stiffens competition.

Yet a prevailing feeling among technology experts attending the summit was that serious risk-taking was unavoidable. Mobile and fixed-line operators, provided they wanted to compete in the services space, would have no choice but to evolve their portfolio of communication services to rival internet players, even if it did hurt the top line in the process – a necessary sacrifice to remain “relevant” to customers.

Mark Windle, head of marketing at OpenCloud, suggested that many operators were too obsessed with “monetising this and monetising that” and that both a technology and cultural change was required. There are different ways to value companies rather than revenue growth, he argued, pointing to the $19 billion valuation placed on WhatsApp by Facebook.

But how willing and able are operators to adapt?

Sebastian Schumann, senior network designer at Slovak Telekom, was all too ready to acknowledge that operators needed to change and that partnerships with smaller and more agile firms was more likely to result in innovation than relying on existing organisational structures. He talked of “resistance from people used to doing things the same old way”.

Schumann told Mobile World Live he was surprised that operators had not experimented more in developing telephony services beyond “legacy circuit-switched single device concepts”. High-profile examples – and which don’t use WebRTC – have been pretty much limited to Rogers One Number and Telefonica’s TU Go.

He added that operators, in general, were guilty of seeing things too much from a network (and revenue-generating) point of view rather than from the perspective of users who, in growing numbers, expect to access communication services from a range of devices – not just ones with SIMs – and from wherever they happen to be.

In terms of WebRTC, given this backdrop of conservative thinking, Schumann conceded it would be difficult to convince higher management of use cases – at least in the early stages – when it was less than obvious how to make money from them. That’s why partnerships come in handy, he said, to do use case experimentation.

Yet even among the technology managers attending the summit, I didn’t get the impression they were willing to throw all caution to the digital wind.They were plenty of concerns about the stability of the WebRTC platform and the length of call set-up times. The consensus was that more experimentation with the nascent technology would be required, most likely for the remainder of the year, before telcos might even consider launching commercial services.

Maybe the business case will be a bit clearer by then. The initial arguments for commercial WebRTC, however, are unlikely to revolve around the more traditional business case metric of incremental revenue per user. They will be based more on subscriber retention.

The question, then, is how receptive CEOs and CFOs will be to new ways of thinking?

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