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Monday, February 27, 2012

Technology Trends: The different dimensions of convergence (Digital Convergence)

Convergence means different things to different people depending on the context. However, in telecoms we can four kinds of convergence. This article explores these four kinds of convergence.

Industry Convergence

The telephone (telecommunication) industry, the television (media/broadcast) industry and the Internet industry once existed separately with specialized infrastructure to deliver their respective services. For example, the telecom (voice) industry was built on specialized circuit-switched network technology. The television (media/broadcast) industry used specialized broadcast network technology to deliver television (video broadcast) services to consumers. Broadband access to the Internet was also offered as an independent service by broadband service providers.

However, with technological advances, these apparently independent industries are converging and are contending in the same digital content distribution space illustrated below;

There are two major reasons behind this transition. First, analog content is being replaced with digital content. As a result, content, no matter what industry it belongs to, is converted from analog to digital and then packaged into small units called packets. Second, the network infrastructure is converging into a common packet-switched Internet protocol (IP)-based network technology, which is capable of carrying packets in an efficient manner. Naturally, all content, voice, video and data, are being transported over the common network. Telephony has become an “application” on the Internet (voice over IP). Television is also becoming an “application” on the Internet (Internet television) and the Internet itself, which used to be non-friendly to real-time traffic, is also morphing to support real-time traffic, preserving quality of service. As a result, the challenges being faced by these industries are almost identical, except for whatever business challenges they have specific to their domain. Moreover, each of these industries is expanding the boundaries of its business, thereby treading in so-called unfamiliar territory. This is leading to challenges but also to opportunities.

Device Convergence

Consumer electronics and communications functionality are converging onto consumer devices. For example, laptops are being equipped with microphone, speakers, cameras and other consumer electronics to enable new capabilities like telephony and video conferencing (using Skype, Yahoo! Messenger, Gtalk etc.) across the Internet in addition to the traditional applications, such as Web surfing, instant messaging and e-mail. What used to be just a mobile phone a few years ago is today a camera, a video recorder, an MP3 player, an AM/FM radio, an electronic organizer, a gaming controller, a phone, a device for surfing the Web, a device for sending instant messages, and in some cases, a device for watching television (as shown in the illustration below). Consumers’ ownership of such powerful handheld devices opens the door for communications service providers (CSPs) to deliver a variety of content embodied in text, images, audio and video to the end user. However, the fact that an end user can store the delivered multimedia content and share it with the rest of the world with a single push of a button may lead to unprecedented illegal sharing of content, making it content owners’ worst nightmare. Thus the benefits of convergence come with challenges of security and privacy.

Network Convergence

Network infrastructures used by the telephone (telecommunication) industry, the television (media/broadcast) industry and the Internet industry have traditionally been very different. The telecommunications industry has been using circuit-switched network elements; the television industry has been using broadcast network equipment and the Internet industry has been using packet-switched network elements. Packet-switched networks have been built using different technologies as well. For example, asynchronous transfer mode (ATM), frame relay (FR) and IP are all technologies that have been used and are still being used in CSPs’ networks. One way of reducing capital expenses (CAPEX) and operational expenses (OPEX) would be to choose a common technology for the network infrastructure. This would assist CSPs in their need to contain expenses by training and employing technical people skilled in only the chosen type of technology. The fact of the matter is, the CSPs are converging onto using only IP/MPLS based networks for transport and IP multimedia subsystem (IMS)-based infrastructure for session/service and blended (voice, video, data) applications ( as shown below).

Service Convergence

Services offered by the telecommunications industry, the television industry, the Internet industry and the wireless services industry have been independent of one another. However, with the introduction of new technology enabling unified communications across these networks, consumers expect to access the same services (voice, e-mail, messaging and so forth) and content (Web, video, audio) anytime from anywhere using any device (laptop, TV set, cellphone) with consistent quality of experience (as shown below)

An example of service convergence would be for CSPs to offer a service that would enable their customers to take part in social networking using any device from anywhere. Moreover, customers not only expect to be able to use the services from anywhere using any device, but they also expect to move content/services seamlessly from network to network without compromising quality of experience.

In summary.............

Digital convergence is already happening in the industry. With digitization of content, the distinction between voice, video, images and text is blurring as everything is being treated uniformly as data and transported over a common IP network as opposed to using specialized networks for transporting voice, video and data. Furthermore, everything is becoming an application on the IP network leading to overlapping of what used to be distinct industry segments, namely, telecom (voice), broadcast and media (video) and Internet (data). In order to provide access to these applications from anywhere and at any time, devices (PC/laptop, mobile handsets, TV sets) are becoming more and more powerful with multiple consumer electronic features being built into them, leading to what is known in the industry as device convergence. A case in point is a smart handset with features, such as, AM/FM radio, mobile TV, phone, browser, digital camera, video recorder, MP3 player, calendar, office applications and a host of other features. A variety of network technologies are converging into IP-based technology, leading to mixing and matching of applications and features in any service from the end-user perspective and lower capital expense (capex) and operational expense (opex) from the service provider perspective. Service convergence refers to the capability of end users to avail the same service regardless of the network over which it is accessed and the ability of end users to access the same content over multiple devices in a seamless manner. Digital convergence is leading to new applications and services that were not possible before and opening up new possibilities both from the service provider perspective as well as from the end-user standpoint.

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