WebRTC Conference & Expo: A Turn of the Tables

July 8th, 2013
Joe McGarvey, Director of Strategic Marketing, GENBAND

In the post-Supercomm world, tradeshows in North America have become focused on specific technology areas, rather than diffused across multiple segments of the industry. The WebRTC Conference & Expo in Atlanta, conducted at the end of June, was no exception. It’s hard to think of a hotter topic careening through the corridors of the communications industry these days than the rise of browser-based unified-communications. TMCNet’s impeccably conducted semi-annual seminar on WebRTC attracted 700 attendees and nearly 60 exhibitors.

That may seem like small potatoes, especially compared to the GSMA’s annual Mobile World Congress, which remains the big enchilada on the trade show menu.  But those who attended the WebRTC conference were witness to the initial rumblings of what will be a seismic shift in the communications landscape. That shift, of course, is the maturing of the Web into a legitimate and near-ubiquitous medium for real-time communication.

Accordingly, headlining the conference were Google, Mozilla and a few lesser-known but innovative companies that have been working with WebRTC since its introduction nearly two years ago. Several telecom equipment vendors were also on hand, primarily offering infrastructure technology for brokering communications between the Web and telco domains.

While there were plenty of network operators in Atlanta, the majority of those attendees were there for observation, rather than participation. That’s an apt metaphor, actually, for current conditions in the commercial telecommunications market. Large network operators, for the most part, are still figuring out how WebRTC fits into their futures.

An outside observer could be forgiven for surmising that the advent of WebRTC significantly unsettles the network operator’s position in the communications value chain. In addition to being a Web-based standard for communications backed by the biggest names in the Internet, WebRTC promises to knock down almost every remaining barrier to entering the communications business. For would-be OTTs, WebRTC is Nirvana.

As it turns out, though, WebRTC is just as likely to be the karmic comeuppance of Internet-based service providers, which have literally built billion-dollar businesses on top of the infrastructures of network operators. The upshot of WebRTC is that it actually opens up the opportunity for network operators to turn the tables on OTTs.   The Internet can now be used to extend their services to anyone with a browser – finally providing a mechanism to expand their reach beyond the footprint of their access networks.   Network operators are now fully unshackled to compete out of region and use others’ infrastructure.

But the real beauty of this new world order is that most of the heavy lifting is now left to the new kids on the communications block. The Googles and Mozillas will oversee (and fund!) the drafting and release of governing standards. Let those same parties lobby silicon makers to embed enabling technologies, such as VP8 (or VP9), into chip sets. Operators just need to aggressively work on building compelling applications and services that leverage their competitive assets, such as controlling the largest social network on the planet (the PSTN), while the other guys swing the hammers for a change.

With any new technology, though, multiple factions form around traditional spectrums --pure vs. practical, evolution vs. revolution, and quick vs. comprehensive.   More than one panel discussion at the WebRTC Conference & Expo veered into a sometimes-heated discourse on the possible ramifications of Apple or Microsoft offering an alternative to WebRTC. The Web set is on the verge of discovering that the spoils of being the preferred medium for communications is not without some messiness, including managing the delicate balance between mutual benefit and self- interest among major players.

Also on display at the conference was plenty of evidence that the telecom domain and Web domains still have different designs for WebRTC.   The telecom world sees WebRTC as primarily adding browsers as endpoints to communications services, while the Web companies clearly see WebRTC as an opportunity to infuse Web pages with communications. Similarly, while much of the telecom industry supports SIP as the protocol of choice for core networks, legions of Web developers are building applications with familiar tools, such as REST or JSON.

It is apparent from the recent WebRTC conference that a major milestone in the next round of disruption will be when network operators find a satisfactory signaling strategy for bridging with the Web world that blends the best attributes of both domains and attracts a vibrant developer ecosystem.  Related to this, network operators need to seize the opportunity that WebRTC presents and quickly show they are able to innovate -- or risk bleeding more minutes to a new series of alternate services.

WebRTC, when combined with SDN/NFV, has the ability to transform network operators into lean and agile service providers that exceed all competitors in terms of reach and the ability to coordinate the flow of real-time communications. In a new twist on an old cliché, the best way for network operators to beat their Web-centric competitors is to join them.

Accordingly, network operators should be partnering exclusively with suppliers dedicated to the core objective of assisting operators in optimizing their infrastructures to excel in a Web-based service delivery environment. 

Rather than the nail in the coffin it was once believed to be, WebRTC turns out to be a lifeline, dangling before network operators the opportunity to extend their dominant position in the communications value chain to the Internet. Who knows when the next one will come along?

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