Here is the partially edited interview I had with Tony Krueck, VP of Product Development at Sprint. This was a great interview for me as I really learned a great deal about what Sprint is up to and how they are embracing IMS. It is along interview but it wasn't edited down because there is some great content in here.
The IP Communications space is evolving rapidly, particularly in the wireless arena, but pitfalls abound for service providers, not the least of which is deciding how to balance the varying needs of business customers and consumers. One thing they have in common is a driving desire for a more revolutionary user experience, which includes fixed/mobile convergence, global interoperability, and faster speeds, especially across wireless networks. But perhaps what matters most is that, while customers continually require more of their service providers, they also ask for new services and products to retain their intuitive nature and become overly complicated to use.
Founded in 1899, Sprint long been a major player in the telecom market, from its days as the nation's largest local telephone service provider, to completing the nation's first nationwide 100% digital fiber-optic network, to being the first major carrier to offer the original triple play (local, long distance, and wireless). But it, too, must cope with the changing telecommunications landscape and the varying needs of different customers and evolving technologies. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Sprint's vice president of product development Tony Krueck, who explained how Sprint is approaching the dilemma's that face carriers today.
RT: What changes are you seeing in the VoIP and IP Communications space?
TK: In terms of the things we are doing from a VoIP perspective, the first set of VoIP products that we've brought to market in some time has been our CPE-based managed IP PBX solutions, which have been deployed by our managed services group for a couple of years. We work with an enterprise to install, deploy, and manage IP PBX capability on an ongoing basis, so the company doesn't have to do it on its own.
We have also deployed IP Voice Connect, which is an
With this solution, we're targeting any business looking for a solution where they don't have to make large capital investments to buy telephony equipment. It is especially attractive for customers that want to have PBX capabilities spread across a large geographical area.
For instance, if you have a central headquarters, like an campus center, and, say, 350 remote locations around the country, you could tie all those different locations together - regardless of how big or how small those remote locations are - to a central telephone system. By doing so, the entire company can be on the same voicemail system and can use four-digit dialing. In fact, all the typical things you would get in a campus PBX environment can be spread across the entire nation. It also alleviates the need for remote offices to be left with separate systems.
We also have our next set of voice-over IP solutions for the enterprise in the pipeline, which will provide the ability to integrate wireless phones with other PBX capabilities. Initially we will look at it from an Avaya perspective, meaning it will be integrating your wireless device with either a hosted Avaya IP PBX or with a CPE-based Avaya PBX. If the customer has an Avaya PBX on campus, we have the ability to essentially turn their wireless device into what amounts to a remote extension to the PBX itself, with the look and feel of a phone attached to the PBX.
But the coolest thing is that you can be on a phone call at your desk and suddenly need to move elsewhere. While still on the line, you can, by pressing a single button, hand it off to your mobile phone seamlessly and without loss of functionality. This solution is actually an internally built IMS solution, using a SIP interface. We also have a few additional IMS-based solutions in the works.
The goal is to be able to attach this integrated wireless capability so enterprises can - regardless of which PBX they are using - extend that capability to wireless devices and enjoy a fully converged, integrated product.
RT: That's big news because it's one of the first apps that I've heard of that is actually in use. One of the things about IMS is that people are asking, "Where are the applications?"
TK: There is so much hype over the technology that, right now, companies are saying that it is over-hype and asking when will we actually see things that are interesting.
Initially, even before the IMS hype got started, we started the development of some of these VoIP products, and we utilized a lot of the pieces of the IMS standard before they were even locked out - honestly, because it was cheaper. We knew we would have multiple session-based applications that were going to need to be integrated and also that we would have multiple means by which customers would to want to access the same application.
So, instead of building the applications for multiple networks, it was considerably cheaper to build them using a single set of applications that could interface back with the multiple types of access and networks that people would be utilizing.
RT: It looks like you are ahead of the curve.
TK: Yes, I think we're a little bit ahead of the curve, but a lot of other companies are also investigating IMS, and we've got to stay on our toes. I would estimate we're 12 to 18 months ahead, which could easily get erased, given how quickly things can change in the telecom industry.
But we are pushing to stay ahead with a new high-level sponsored IMS strategy group inside the company. That group is constantly developing and altering and changing our IMS strategy. With this dedicated IMS strategy team, we are staying on top of the changes around IMS and ensuring the company, as a whole, has a consistent focus to keep us on the leading edge.
RT: Is the enterprise a big opportunity for IMS? It seems like a much bigger opportunity than most of us realize.
TK: Well honestly, when you go to all the IMS forums and conferences, a lot of the talk is about consumer products, which is also where all the hype is, but Sprint, along with a few others, are looking at IMS applications in the business space. The idea is that, from a business perspective, all of the IMS apps that we have developed to date are really business applications, and the consumer apps are going to be secondary. We believe that IMS was the right approach from a business perspective with the different networks we have built and integrated.
RT: What about WiFi integration?
TK: We've done many trials with integrated WiFi, but it's not certain that enterprises are really interested in it. Our research shows that if you are going to do a Voice over WiFi play in the enterprise, and the enterprise is going to own that play, then that play really only works when you are on campus or in the enterprise space, geographically. As soon as you leave the enterprise, unless you have a player that is going to help converge those capabilities, you are really looking at a very siloed solution that doesn't provide much flexibility.
When we looked at all of the fixed/mobile conversions possibilities, we found that the best way to fully integrate the solution is via the IMS-based integrated wire solution I described earlier. That gives the customer the ability to have all of the features and capabilities they enjoy today on a wireless device, and allows them to port those over the enterprise as well. It really doesn't require a lot of WiFi integration. Honestly, there is not a lot of real good ways for Sprint to make money when people are using Voice over WiFi in the enterprise. So clearly, there's a problem there as well.
I think all the other wireless carriers would find the same problem, which is why it hasn't really taken off in a big way.
RT: What about the consumer side?
TK: On the consumer side, it's a different story. Customers that have WiFi in the home clearly have the ability to utilize it in any way they choose. If they are paying for that broadband connection anyway, and they have Voice over WiFi capabilities, then it is something that we are willing to take advantage of. We do have some products in development that offer Voice over WiFi capabilities.
There is one, in particular, we call, ‘combo phone.' It is basically a device that will be CDMA in the macro network, and when you enter the home, there's a small piece of CPE that resembles a wireless router, but will have a peering capability to the wireless phone. The phone will identify itself in the home and will pick up the WiFi signal. Then, all calls back on the wireless network will be seamlessly routed, via the WiFi network, to the wireless phone.
RT: How does that benefit the customer?
TK: The benefit for the Sprint customer is improved in-home coverage, because no matter which wireless carrier you are with, when you are inside the home, there are always places where there's a chance your wireless connection might not be as strong as you would like. The router basically provides a home base station through which in-home coverage should be phenomenal.
The wireless router we are going to use will have two to three times the power of a standard home router, so the capability of broadcasting through the home is going to be much better and the voice quality should be excellent - unless you live in a 25,000 square foot house.
The other benefit is unlimited minutes of use while you are on the WiFi connection, while still having access to the benefits of the different applications that we have developed for our wireless phones. So, we see definite value in Voice over WiFi in the home and are developing solutions for it.
Voice over WiFi in the enterprise we're not as excited about. We're still doing trials, we're still talking to customers about it, and we still have equipment in our labs that we are testing, but there's nothing today that we are pushing hard with our customers.
RT: Since the domestic carriers are generally in control of the devices, doesn't that give you control over potentially having a plan where, for $20 a month additional, you can have unlimited WiFi telephony? That would be a way to encourage a single device to be the primary device within an office. Or is that not a good business model?
TK: That could work. Personally, I think it would, especially for something like a $20 upcharge, but it might be pretty hard to get a company to pay an additional $20 a month for the WiFi capability in billing.
RT: There are challenges with service quality and access to different carriers' networks and whose network is a particular call attributed to, but that seems to be where things are headed because we are trying to consolidate devices as much as possible. Instead of upgrading the office phones, couldn't a customer supply its mobile employees with wireless devices, which they likely do anyway, and eliminate the desk phones altogether?
TK: We actually sell a device today that has Voice over WiFi capability. If someone wanted to enable that in their enterprise, they certainly could. It's the Sprint PPC 6700.
Another piece of the complexity is that everybody's wireless LAN is configured a little differently. Enabling seamless handoffs between WiFi hotspots, between floors, between buildings, and various other on-campus scenarios is still something that, from a WiFi perspective, has not been really standardized. It's not a very clean solution yet.
A contributing factor, of course, is that WiFi was never designed for that. Even today, when I try to take my laptop from one building, where I'm connected, to another, it never hands off cleanly - and that's not even real-time traffic. I would like to be able to sit down in another building on the same campus and be able to flip my top open and still be connected, but it just doesn't happen very cleanly. I typically have to reboot my computer. Imagine trying to do that instantaneously while you are on a voice call without dropping the call.
RT: We have a couple more years before this becomes reality - maybe five years - but isn't that where we are headed?
TK: We could be headed that way. We have the other aspect of Voice over IP coming as well, which will be over our 4G 2.5 Gigahertz spectrum. Our intent is to roll that out nationwide and, clearly, Voice over IP will be one of the solutions we offer on that network.
There is also a solution where it isn't going to be necessary to have integration with all of these enterprise networks, and that's primarily the reason why our integrated wireless solution is more elegant today. It has the capability for seamless PBX handoff and moving from building to building, because you are really traveling across our wireless network that is completely integrated and there are no concerns about WiFi handoffs. That solution is available today.
Maybe some day, the Voice over WiFi solutions will become more standardized and will have the capability of offering those same types of services, which is why we continue to explore them and continue to run trials.
RT: Bandwidth-wise, where does that leave us, in terms of technologies like EV-DO?
TK: We have several wireless data networks. We have what we call 3G1X, with which you are probably familiar. That was the original, what we used to call a high-speed data network. But it was essentially 50 to 70 kb per second up and downstream and has been replaced with EV-DO, which has average speeds of 500 to 700 kbps on the downlink, but still only 50 to 70 kbps on the uplink.
Most Internet traffic is downlink intensive, so the experience, when you are downloading, is very quick. But, when you are uploading data, it is still a little slow. However, when you are doing standard Microsoft Office work, it is significantly better than 3G1X. When we launch EV-DO Rev A, you will see DSL-like customer experiences across the network. EV-DO Rev A will basically give you the same 500 to 700 kbps speeds on the uplink as you have on the downlink.
We plan on launching EV-DO Rev A nationwide on the entire footprint. We will start to incorporate the capability in the network in the Q4 of this year. We will have a card that's able to offer Rev A service for sale in Q3, even though service won't be available. By the Q1 2007, Rev A will be available to about 154 million pops covered on our network.
RT: Whose equipment are you using for that?
TK: All of the radio access networks will use the core radio access networks that are there today - Motorola, Lucent, Nortel, and Samsung radio access networks.
RT: Are you first to market with EV-DO Rev A? It seems like you are ahead of Verizon at this point.
TK: We already consider ourselves ahead of Verizon with total pops covered on EVDO Rev 0. Clearly, we are on a warpath to put as many of our cell sites on EV-DO Rev 0 as quickly as we possibly can. EV-DO Rev A, as soon as it's available, will start pumping out as well.
We actually have EV-DO Rev A products that are in development, so not just the core network, but also some new exciting products that will flow across that network will launch at about the same time. Those will include some of our new IMS applications
It's a busy time at Sprint; we've got a lot of huge projects we are working on.
RT: I have been a wireless user for years, and I remember when Sprint was one of the first to roll out a reasonably priced wireless network, and then the Verizon people did a good job of quickly getting the 1X network up and then the EV-DO network up.
TK: Well, remember too, and we've got many business drivers that are pushing us in some very specific directions. One of them our merger with Nextel and our desire to develop a high-performance push-to-talk capability, which will ride on our EV-DO Rev A network.
RT: Where do we stand in terms of the rest of the world in terms of GSM networks? How do you see that shaking out in the future? Are we going to change the networks in this country, or are we just going to get used to using devices that have multiple radios in them?
TK: Clearly, Sprint is on a CDMA path, and has been. That is our future architecture. What the European countries are planning to do, I'll leave it to you to ask them.
But internationally, they are clearly on a GSM path, though they're also deploying wideband CDMA data networks. We would love to have full interoperability with many of the European carriers. I think one way we will be able to integrate with our partners overseas is IMS.
Once you have access using some kind of IP access, you have the ability to interface applications, so the core technology becomes less and less important, as long as you are all talking IP. It doesn't help us from a roaming perspective because the device would have to support both GSM and CDMA. Incidentally, Sprint does have multiple devices that support both GSM and CDMA technologies for our customers that travel overseas.
The bigger problem for Sprint is that European customers don't have dual band devices that are capable of operating on a CDMA network, so when they come over to the United States, they don't have the luxury of using our networks, although our customers have the luxury of going over there and using theirs.
It's an inbound versus outbound roaming concern, and I can't tell you what the future holds with respect to a worldwide standard. I do know Sprint is spearheading work with other carriers worldwide on 4G to try and get as many companies worldwide to agree on a standard, so that we can have worldwide roaming capabilities across countries and networks. Sprint has not announced its 4G technology yet, but there are several competing technologies, WiMAX being a big one.
RT: WiMAX does have a mobile component. Do you consider it to be competitive in this space?
TK: There are probably four or five different technologies that Sprint is reviewing. Again, we have not made a decision yet, but clearly, the goal is to have as many carriers worldwide on the same standard, so that we can enable the path forward. My speculation would be that 4G is going to be our best bet to drive a worldwide adoption of the wireless standard.
RT: Can you talk about Net Neutrality?
TK: I'm not really in a position to talk about Net Neutrality, mainly because Sprint does not have an official position on it yet. We see the benefits of both sides. IMS is a technology that would say Net Neutrality is a must. If you want to use applications across suppliers, it would have integrated capabilities, regardless from which carrier you buy your service.
Then, clearly, we can't see ourselves becoming the bit pipe either. If we are not able to charge for the specific bandwidth and types of services that customers are buying, there has to be a way for carriers to stay in business. There are two sides to the equation, and the company is still working towards exactly how to approach it.
RT: Wouldn't the price of having to become an ISP over the price of service just go up if you have to guarantee Net Neutrality?
TK: In the real world, logically, yes. But there are enough companies that would call themselves ISPs today that it would be a commoditized business and, basically, the business would go to the lowest bidder. You would see many of the companies go out of business, and there would be very, very low margins for the carriers. Clearly, that is not the direction Sprint is headed. We are just as much a content company as we are a telecom company, as we are an Internet service provider. We are all those things to many customers.
RT: So, where is communications heading in the next five years?
TK: I think both the consumer and business sides are clearly headed towards converged services - and converged means a lot of things to a lot of different people. Even internally, we describe convergence in many different ways. We have device convergence, where multiple devices are converging into a single device, like MP3 players, video camcorders, cameras, email, gaming, laptop functionality, and, of course, telephony going into the same device - that is clearly a form of convergence.
I described several products that Sprint has that are converging wireless and wireline capabilities into a single capability, single service that we can offer customers. Voice mail convergence is occurring, so that you have only one voice mail solution for multiple types of service. There's also network convergence, where voice traffic and data traffic are now flowing across the same access and the same core networks, all enabled by IMS.
There are so many different types of convergence coming that, clearly, both consumer and business customers are heading toward a converged world. Our idea is not to make convergence a complicated thing for the customer - it has to be intuitive, and useful for the customer. So, combining wireless and wireline might sound great from our perspective, but if it doesn't work for the customer and make their lives simpler and easier to manage, it becomes a fruitless effort. So, all of our convergence efforts are geared toward driving simplicity for the customer.
RT: So that's the end game, simplicity for the customer?
TK: Simplicity for the customer in a converged world where it doesn't matter which of our networks you are on or what kind of device you are using. We want you to be able to access all of the different applications from any network of ours that you use, with the look and feel being the same.
Sprint clearly has an agenda for shaping the telecom industry in the United States as well as abroad, both in terms of business customers and its large consumer user base. Notably, the imminent rollout of its latest products and services are focused on one thing above all else - that the end user experience must not become more complicated, but more intuitive and simple. But that is the nature of the game, where ever more complicated technologies enable a more exciting communications environment, but the customer has neither the knowledge nor the time to understand how it works. They simply want it to work. That is where carriers are likely to differentiate themselves from their peers as the telecom landscape continues to mature.