Messaging: onward with RCS-e
Among the many announcements made and initiatives launched at this year’s Mobile World Congress were some major developments in mobile messaging. Support has been growing among network operators for the GSMA’s Rich Communications Services (RCS) concept, which is aimed at transitioning voice and messaging services into an all-IP and LTE world. Leading handset makers and infrastructure suppliers have committed themselves to support RCS and commercial services are due to begin in several European countries this year.
A new global specification developed through the GSMA, RCS 5.0, will ensure that voice, messaging, and all future communication services will remain available on both existing and all-IP LTE networks. RCS 5.0 will support services across mobile and fixed networks, offering high-quality IP-based voice and video calling; geo-location, where a user can push accurate location information to others on the call; cloud storage for messages, allowing secure access from any connected device; and live video sharing during IM chat sessions.
However, the services to be launched this year will be based on the RCS-e (Enhanced Rich Communications Suite) specification which the GSMA announced last year, and to these it has given the commercial name Joyn.
Coming on stream
Among the infrastructure suppliers supporting the new standard is Acision, whose servers handle some 40 per cent of the mobile world’s messaging traffic. “RCS-e is all about three new standard communication services”, explains Aram Krol, of the company. “You have voice, text messaging as a standard offering when you get your SIM, and now three more services are coming on stream: group messaging, group chat, video sharing and file transfer.
“I think the good news is that the handsets are now coming on stream, the carriers have done their work and now the services are being launched. What the RCS community have thought about is what is the best common positioning and branding for the service package, and they have decided to call it Joyn to emphasize the collaboration and communication in the standard way. That’s the way the carriers will advertise the services when they launch them.”
With Joyn, he continues, new services will be basic functions of the handset, as distinct from the ‘over the top’ chat and data transfer services offered today by independent providers such as Skype. For RCS-e, no special apps will have to be installed and launched.
“If you take an RCS-e phone, you put your SIM in, you get three more services. You get group chat from the same environment, you can do file transfers – it could be documents, pictures, what have you, also during a call – or you can do a video share while you are on a call. For example, if you are on call with your wife and you want to show what you’re seeing, you can just activate your camera and there it goes.
“So the whole service environment works just like that, out-of-the-box, as easy as SMS works. That’s the promise of RCS-e. You don’t have to do anything. Just like with the iPhone, where you open a contact and you can just click Facetime to do a video call, with RCS phones you will get a couple more buttons to do video sharing and file transfer. So it’s really an integrated service experience with very low barriers to enter.”
Acision launched an RCS-e add-on for its Broadband Messaging Service Centre shortly before the show, and a feature of it is that it’s designed to provide a good user experience even at the outset when the penetration of RCS-e-enabled phones is low. It does this by integrating the new file transfer features with MMS and SMS. “We’re ready to rock’n’roll”, Mr Krol declares. “When you have our technology, your consumers could actually set up a group chat where two of the people are on RCS and three of the people are on SMS and it will still be completely seamless, the single service experience.”
For the next stage of messaging’s evolution, messaging companies are focusing on communications in an all-IP environment. “The RCS-e services are really collaborative-type services but the voice and messaging services that exist today in GSM also have to find their way into IP”, he adds. “And that’s another activity that we’re working on, where the $120 billion that the carrier community makes with SMS will have to carry over to the LTE network, and that’s a lot of work that we’re putting in right now. New standards, and we’re working on the SMS and MME activities as well, to continue that text-based service that everybody loves.”
A crowded market
However, as mobile operators’ messaging revenues slide, reflecting the impact of social networking and other ‘over the top’ IP channels, some are sceptical about prospects for RCS-e. “The problem is that RCS-e may well be too little, and far too late”, commented Pamela Clark-Dickson, senior analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media. “When SMS services first became available in the early 1990s, mobile subscribers did not have access to multiple communications channels. Ten short years later, however, there was just enough choice for mobile subscribers in terms of communications services – among other contributory factors – to negatively impact mobile operators’ MMS launches.
“Mobile operators will face a similar situation with RCS-e that they faced with MMS. RCS-e-based services will compete in a crowded market, and operators will need to carefully position these services if they are to maximize adoption and use.”
And she added: “The failure of other high-profile, cross-operator initiatives in the past illustrates that it is by no means certain that this particular high-profile, cross-operator initiative will succeed.”
M2M: brewing as a service
Rolling out to an office near you is a new wave of coffee machines equipped with M2M wireless communications as part of a managed service plan.
“Nespresso came to us because they wanted to roll out a new service for the customer that you can define as coffee as a service”, says Gillo Malpart, of M2M technology provider Sierra Wireless. “They wanted to sell new generation of machines – largest ones for hotels, restaurants, cafés, etc., and smallest ones for SMEs and meeting rooms. “What Nespresso sells is coffee. But so that they can sell the most coffee, they need to have operating machines. So they came to us and they said: ‘We need to have a remote monitoring solution for the coffee machines’. For this we helped them integrating wireless technology with one of our modems, the GL 6100. And we’ve designed with the coffee machine manufacturer a local monitoring solution.
“With this information – for example, the temperature of the water, the number of capsules that were brewed with the unit, if the water tank is empty or not – we send all this information over the air. It is gathered to a technical database which is hosted in our M2M cloud platform and we publish all information over web services to the Nespresso IT system.
“So Nespresso have integrated their ERP with technical information coming from the field. They are now capable of deploying and providing new services to the customer: for example, auto-ordering. If the customer has contracted for 200 capsules a month and he is already at 150, we know that he will be missing some capsules in a few days. And if the customer has contracted Nespresso for auto-ordering, then Nespresso will automatically send the preferred capsules and preferred coffee for this specific customer. So it’s peace of mind for the customer.”
In addition, Mr Malpart continues, Nespresso’s technical quality managers can remotely perform diagnostic tests on the machines. “One of the major use cases is that customers call Nespresso and say, ‘Hey, the coffee is too hot, I can’t drink it!’ Before this solution, the technical and quality management were coming to the customer and changing some parameters and then saying, ‘OK, Mr Customer, you can drink it now’. But now they can do this remotely: you can monitor and say, you are right, the temperature is too hot, let me do something for you.
“The other thing is, of course, stock optimization. Nespresso is now capable of knowing what is the consumption behaviour of the customer, so they can optimize their sales force, and probably do some promotional calls as well.”
For this project, he adds, Sierra Wireless helped Nespresso with the hardware integration within the machine, and provided expertise in machine monitoring and wireless connectivity. Running an application in Sierra Wireless’s OpenAT language, the wireless modem communicates the machine’s status and coffee usage to Sierra’s cloud platform, the Airvantage Server.
Nespresso can then collect this information to use in order fulfilment, inventory management, customer care, and potentially even for fraud detection. A key design feature was cost-optimization of the data transfers: these take place only when needed, to save on transmission costs.
Now the machines are being rolled out in more than 50 countries; Spain’s turn came during the Mobile World Congress itself.
The wireless module inside the machines is a 2G (GSM) device; in Mr Malpart’s transparent demonstration model, it’s visible inside. “Because of several environmental constraints, we have integrated an embedded SIM card which is soldered directly on to the module”, he explains. “You know, when you do the coffee, the machine vibrates a lot! So it’s to prevent the SIM card to be disconnected or something like that.”
With a wireless service, there must be some risk that the corner of the office chosen for the machine has no connectivity. But Mr Malpart is confident that this won’t be an obstacle. “What Nespresso does is they sell service, and for the installation of the coffee machine technical staff will be there and will help you”, he says. “We are talking about professional, B2B markets. So they will install it and make sure that everything works fine and the first coffee is OK and they will also make sure there is connectivity. If there is not, then they will put into their ERP that this specific machine for this specific customer won’t have the auto ordering solution. So they will be monitoring it in the usual way.”
Operating framework for 3G M2M
At the Mobile World Congress, Sierra Wireless announced that it had implemented its OpenAT embedded operating system for M2M devices on its high-bandwidth 3G platforms. “In order to make that happen we have to virtualize OpenAT on the Qualcomm chipset, which is technologically quite difficult, so it’s quite an achievement”, said Jason Krause, of the company. “It gives our customers the opportunity to move their 2G applications to 3G. Many customers have built openAT applications on our 2G modules and now, as they transition to 3G, this gives them a seamless path to do that.”
Using an operating system, he explains, can streamline the design of products such as a tracking device. “To bring the cost down, you can put the microprocessor, microcontroller and the wireless module together in one device and that’s what this enables. And in fact we have a companion GPS that is pre-integrated as well. So through this it just takes cost out of the initial hardware for the customer, and it’s pre-integrated, so their time to market is much faster. And the size, too – they can get the size down.”
Open AT also provides connectivity with the Sierra Wireless’s AirVantage M2M Cloud Platform, for advanced remote device and asset management, as well as subscriber management in collaboration with network operators around the world.
The tail that wags the 4G dog
One aspect of next-generation services which has been evolving rapidly is small-cell architectures, which will be essential for delivering the dense coverage and high data throughputs that tomorrow’s users will expect.
A mark of these changes is that the Femto Forum, an industry grouping which is helping to drive these technologies, appeared at this year’s Mobile World Congress under a new name, the Small Cell Forum.
“The technology for femtocells has come a long way”, explained Professor Simon Saunders, the group’s chairman. “Now there’s a much wider range of applications of that same underlying technology that operators are telling us they really want to see promoted and developed. Small cells is the umbrella term for all of that. And under that we’ve got femtocells, picocells, metro-cells and microcells that we can use to offer services in the home, the enterprise, the urban and rural environments.
“Actually we’ve been talking about femtocells across those environments for some time, but there is a risk of some confusion. People thought that picocells were competing with femtocells, or something like that, and we want to correct that.”
With the introduction of products such as Vodafone’s Sure Signal indoor booster, the forum was able to announce last year that 3G femtocells were already outnumbering 3G microcells. At this year’s show, a new market status report commissioned by the forum showed that 3G femtocells would in the next few months reach another milestone, outnumbering all macrocells, 2G, 3G and 4G.
“We have currently 40 operators with live commercial services and a further 13 who have committed publicly to launching, and many more in the pipeline”, Prof. Saunders continued. “In the UK particularly, Vodafone’s existing Sure Signal service has now been joined by Hutchison 3G, by Three, who are now in the early stages of their own femtocell service.
“Looking forwards over the next five years, we are expecting a growth of about 20 times in small cells collectively, from today’s base. And that takes them up to over 60 million. At that point they will represent nearly 90 per cent of base stations.”
As LTE services start up in many countries, small-cell technologies are expected to be a key component of these systems. The first commercial deployment of LTE femtocells, by SK Telecom, began in Korea in December. The Small Cell Forum played a part in this by publishing specifications of interfaces between the chips inside an LTE femtocell, so that devices from different vendors would work correctly together. These specifications have been adopted by all the major silicon vendors, including TI, Mindspeed and Broadcom and are used in the SK Telecom deployment.
Not so long ago, small cells were regarded by operators as merely a good solution for the edge of the network – but today they are increasingly taking centre stage. Small cells offer a means of delivering LTE fast, and at acceptable cost. Professor Saunders said: “Right at the beginning, anybody with one of these cells can get the top-end service and then the network can grow from there.”
Another aspect on which the group has focused is the interaction between the small cells managed by mobile operators in their licensed spectrum and what Professor Saunders calls the Wild West world of Wi-Fi. “Which clearly operators are deciding to corral somewhat anyway”, he says. “But they’ve been treated separately: there’s carrier Wi-Fi over here and there is licensed spectrum small cells over there.
“We can see them as complementary: there are a lot of Wi-Fi access points out there, which is good and helpful, but still not all devices support Wi-Fi – and those that do may have Wi-Fi switched off at any given moment in time. So we felt that you could go further than that. We have a number of vendors’ products that have LTE or 3G and Wi-Fi and increasingly LTE in the same box. So you have one access point for all three technologies.
“But we are not even talking about that level of integration. We’re talking about the opportunity for a deep level of integration right through the network so that the operator can manage the user experience on one multi-technology access point consistently.
“You might find that the user is doing general Internet browsing – the operator is earning little value from that, it’s best-effort type traffic so they use the Wi-Fi pipe. A moment later, the user starts wanting to watch some HD video programme and LTE is perfect for that, especially on a small cell, giving a guaranteed quality of service experience. Operators need to be able to switch between those.
“In a more advanced implementation, actually it’s not switching, it’s combining those two together. So you’ve got both attributes to a single mobile device at the same time. And we are tremendously excited by that. There’s a huge amount of opportunity for operators, for new services that come from that are monetizable, and a great user experience that can come from that.”
Another topic studied within the forum is the potential for expanding the use of small cell technologies. Of some 40 commercial femtocell deployments today, almost all are targeted at homes and possibly small offices. But there could be benefits in developing the technology to serve the very biggest office environments: offering an alternative to the distributed antenna systems (DAS) used today, it could be simpler to install in existing buildings and therefore cheaper.
“The biggest challenge there is you’ve now got a whole radio network in the building, not just one access point”, explains Professor Saunders. “You clearly need to have bigger coverage, potentially bigger power, you need bigger capacity and you need the interactions between the cells to work well – the handovers.”
However, these systems will have to work without requiring specialist RF expertise at the planning and installation stage, because there simply aren’t enough people with the necessary skills. “So what we’ve identified is basically some simple guidelines which with a modicum of training is sufficient” Prof. Saunders continues. “The processes look very similar to what a system integrator deploying a decent enterprise Wi-Fi system would do. So they’ll need some training, they’ll need some tools they need to do a simple test with a phone to figure out some things, and then later follow some best practices – but once they do that it will be fine.”