Interview: Alcatel-Lucent on WebRTC with Anne Lee

W3C and IETF are standardizing WebRTC technology to bring real-time communications to Web applications. Recently I spoke with Anne Lee, CTO, Advanced Communications Solutions Innovations and Bell Labs Fellow at Alcatel-Lucent about their experience with the emerging standard.

Ian: How do you see WebRTC transforming the telecommunications industry?

AL: WebRTC is a bridge between the telecommunications world and the Web. It lets operators reach customers with integrated solutions on many devices and over many types of telecommunications services. WebRTC offers a great opportunity for Telcos to expand their offerings by tapping into the enormous Web market. WebRTC will also enable the Telcos to transform existing offerings.

Ian: What integrated services do you find particularly compelling?

AL: For both the consumer and enterprise markets, the integration of voice, video, instant messaging, file transfer, and screen/document sharing. With WebRTC we can provide those services over the Web to IMS subscribers.

Ian: I apologize: what is IMS?

AL: The IP Multimedia Subsystem is a modern, next generation IP-based communications backend; the successor to circuit switching and softswitches. The IMS is what will provide both basic as well as rich, advanced communications services to end users. Today, end users want flexibility in where they originate or receive communications. Imagine being able to initiate a phone call from a TV set or tablet or desktop browser – the device can be yours, your friend’s, at a hotel, etc. Video calling, document sharing and other advanced services can become even more interesting when you have a larger screen. In a world where an HTML5-based browser serves as something akin to an operating system, WebRTC is the communications component of the system.

Ian: Do you have examples of how people will use WebRTC from Web sites?

AL: Suppose you are using your bank’s website and need help. WebRTC can enable a button to “call one of our agents.” You push the button to make the call directly from your browser. The bank has now provided you with better customer service.

Ian: Is the customer service use case an important one?

AL: Yes, today that’s a focus area in enterprise use cases. Another use case is intra-enterprise communications, for example with remote employees. Today enterprises address this use case by having employees download a soft client. But it’s easier and more operationally efficient if the company can offer the same service through a browser – where no installation is required and updates are done via the ‘refresh’ button. Being able to look up a colleague’s number from an X.500 directory and then clicking to call rather than picking up a phone is powerful. Once you are working in the browser, you can do more than talk: you can share documents or the screen, and you can upgrade to video. With WebRTC, it is going to become much easier for a service provider to offer rich, communications services for applications integration.

Ian: How do companies use Alcatel-Lucent’s WebRTC solution?

AL: We sell IMS systems to Telcos, Cable operators, and extra-large enterprises. We offer a complete WebRTC solution composed of a border controller, developer tools (APIs, client libraries, and a hosted developer sandbox), plus a WebRTC-verified IMS. Developers create the WebRTC endpoints using our APIs and integrate into applications such as the ones I mentioned earlier.

AL: At the other end of the spectrum, smaller firms will leverage IMS solutions from Telcos. Those Telcos, in turn, make available our WebRTC solution (through APIs), so that the smaller firms can integrate the Telco’s services into their websites or applications. For instance, this allows very small businesses to provide a “click to call” button using just a few lines of JavaScript in an HTML5 page.

Ian: Are you seeing a lot of demand for WebRTC?

AL: Yes, our customers are very interested. That interest ranges from questions about what WebRTC can do, to lab trials, to preparing the first commercial deployment for a North American Tier 1 converged operator. Demand has grown steadily over the past couple of years. I think that customers see the potential. It’s just a matter of working out what types of use cases to go after first.

Ian: What is the most disruptive part of this?

AL: Providing another dimension to the delivery of communications services. There will be more flexibility and a wider selection of ways to communicate. It may also someday not just augment but replace dedicated hard phones. The question will be how to monetize the new opportunities. New business models will need to be developed.

Ian: WebRTC includes a “real-time” aspect as well as a “peer-to-peer” (p2p) aspect. Can you help me tease them apart?

AL: When people say “p2p” they are sometimes alluding to the efficiencies of sending media from one endpoint to another without intermediaries, for example, to avoid transcoding due to costs. P2P solutions can shift costs to other parts of the network where you don’t want them, however. Suppose you are on a multi-party wireless call. If you have a p2p connection with each party, then each endpoint has to send the same media stream multiple times, once to each participant. That is costly in terms of wireless spectrum use for end users and service providers alike. Service providers don’t necessarily want people to use up valuable, limited spectrum by sending multiple copies of the same information. At the same time, users don’t want to eat up their data plan sending the same information multiple times. It’s more efficient in this case to send the information once to the IMS where a component in the system is responsible for relaying the information to the other parties.

Ian: How does the developer choose the communications approach?

AL: Through the APIs offered by the communications service provider. The approach is dependent on which communications service provider the developer chooses to use/partner with. Alcatel-Lucent’s IMS solution is server-based. We can also support p2p scenarios where it makes sense (and it does make sense in some cases). Service provider requirements determine in part which approach is used on a case by case basis. For example, suppose a 2-party call needs to be monitored due to a legal intercept request, then that media cannot be transmitted p2p.

Ian: You mentioned a performance-based advantage to the IMS approach. What other advantages do you see to using WebRTC with IMS?

AL: WebRTC is superior to proprietary solutions because it is open and built into the browser. The big advantage of IMS is that it preserves global interoperability for next generation IP communications that the current PSTN/PLMN provides today for circuit voice calls and SMS. It preserves the social contract that is expected today for universal reach. This universal reach for communications services is a basic underpinning of the world economy. Businesses must be able to communicate with other businesses. Businesses must be able to communicate with customers. And customers must be able to communicate with businesses. With IMS, any subscriber on any IMS service provider network will be able to communicate with any subscriber on any other IMS service provider network. IMS provides global interoperability between multiple service providers. Over the top (OTT) solutions do not provide the same level of interoperability.

AL: Furthermore, because IMS goes beyond voice and SMS, more types of information can be federated across IMS systems. For example, we can exchange “presence information” even if we use different service providers. The set of interoperable experiences enabled by IMS will continue to expand over time. OTT solutions have their place, but for a global ecosystem, especially for business, I think it’s necessary to have a globally interoperable set of systems. You can read more on this in our White Paper on IMS Systems and WebRTC Proprietary Islands, available on the Alcatel-Lucent WebRTC Solution site.

Ian: What are the biggest hurdles you see for getting WebRTC successfully deployed?

AL: We need the specification to stabilize and to publish version 1 of the standard as soon as possible. Google and Mozilla have been the most aggressive browser implementers. It is great that they have been building and deploying the technology in parallel with the standard being defined and stabilized. However, we know that for our customers, we have to reach a point where the browsers are stable with respect to WebRTC features so that users know that they can rely on WebRTC-enabled applications to work properly. We need a stable version of the standard that is the basis for commercialization. Afterwards, updates and enhancements can happen in future beta versions of browsers until things are again stable in the next release of the standard.

Ian: Anne, thank you for your time!