Leveraging Industry Standards for Success – A Case Study

Telecom is an example of an industry that has created national and international standards for communications in ways that benefit companies large and small. As a consultant, I’ve frequently advised companies about specific standards and how they can be aligned with business strategies. Let’s consider an example.

During the last 15 years, facsimile communications has been dramatically affected by technological forces.  The circuit-switched network is being replaced by IP networks throughout the world, as I noted in a previous post.  As a result, all fax communications company have had to develop a strategy for the transition to IP. The vendor community anticipated this in the late Nineties and key new standards for sending fax messages over IP were developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). The IETF focused on integrating fax with Internet email and the ITU split its efforts between supporting the IETF Internet Fax standards by reference (T.37) and devising a new standard for real-time fax communications (T.38).

Standards adoption often takes time and such was the case for IP fax. There were some early adopters of the email based approach (for example, Panafax and Cisco), but despite backing by both the ITU and IETF, the market didn’t take off. One big reason was the emergence of voice communications over IP (VoIP), primarily based upon the IETF’s Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), which gained increasing momentum during the first decade of the 21st century.

Several of us in the ITU and IETF took a small but critical step which allowed T.38 IP fax to ride this wave. In the year 2000, we completed an annex to T.38 which specified how it could be used with SIP.  As a result, when implementors wanted to add fax support to their SIP-based Voice over IP solutions, the steps required to enable a Voice over IP session to spawn a T.38 fax session had already been specified in a T.38 annex. During this same period, Voice over IP gateways were emerging as the preferred approach to connect the existing circuit-based network to the emerging IP network based on SIP. Cisco and other gateway manufacturers such as Audiocodes and Cantata (later renamed Dialogic) cut over to T.38 as their favored solution to support fax over IP.  The fax board manufacturers such as Brooktrout (later Dialogic) followed suit and T.38 became the most widely adopted solution for Fax over IP.  The use of T.38 for IP fax was also supported by the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) for 4th generation mobile networks and by the SIP Connect initiative for SIP Trunking driven by the SIP Forum.

When I was advising my fax industry clients in the late Nineties, I suggested they keep a close eye on the trends in both fax over IP and Voice over IP in deciding upon their product directions. At this time, the IETF standards for Internet Fax via email got early momentum, but in the standards community, we kept working on both the email and real-time IP fax solutions. As noted above, the step of ensuring that T.38 could eventually be used with SIP in a standards-based solution became very important as Voice over IP became a much bigger industry trend than Fax over IP.  As a result, fax solutions that would work over the emerging voice over IP networks became successful and are still being sold by many communications vendors today. The story didn’t stop there. There are other important trends that have emerged in recent years such as the needs for enhanced security and the transition from physical products to software-based solutions in the Cloud that communications vendors need to bake into their strategies going forward.

If you have been in business scenario where leveraging industry standards helped your company’s products gain success, please feel free to weigh in with your comments. If you’d like to explore strategies on how to evolve your company’s solutions and leverage current or potential industry standards, you can reach me on LinkedIn or on our web site.

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More Business Disruption: Telecom’s Move to IP

In the late Nineties, the Telecom business was dominated by big companies who had built their phone network over many years using switching technology. But a massive storm was on the horizon as the same IP technology which helped revolutionize commerce on the world wide web started to be applied to phone-based voice communications. Early attempts at Voice over IP were primarily targeted to the long distance market. International long distance calling was expensive, so a number of startups began to bypass the traditional long distance network with a much lower cost IP network. The quality wasn’t great, but the price per call over international routes dropped dramatically and IP infrastructure and solutions gathered momentum.

The early leader in IP protocols for voice was the H.323 protocol developed within the traditional standards group for phone networks, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). But competitive protocol models were also on the rise. The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) developed a new IP communications protocol, the Session Identification Protocol (SIP) and both the IETF and ITU worked on a softswitch protocol called Megaco (later standardized by the ITU as H.248).

Around 2001, two important organizations endorsed SIP and the train which would ultimately displace much of the traditional switched phone network was set in motion. Microsoft had been an early user of H.323 and had added it to their instant messaging client support and included multi-point data sharing using T series protocols from the ITU. But Microsoft decided their future communications would be SIP-based and quickly phased out use of H.323. Then, the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), a standards group which had specified the very popular second generation wireless protocol GSM, said that they would be using SIP to build their next generation network and shift both data and voice services over to IP.

But first, the core SIP protocol needed to be finished. IETF participants likely spent millions of manhours and devised an updated version of SIP which got standardized in June, 2002 as RFC 3261, along with 4 other RFCs for related methods and operations. But this was just the beginning. In the time since, the IETF has produced at least 100 SIP-related documents which are either standards track or informational to guide SIP developers.

On the business side, it took quite a while, but the current public phone networks have largely cut over to IP, although there are still elements of the switched network in place.  In the world of mobile communications, the fourth generation network specified by 3GPP was the first to use SIP in its core. The related Long Term Evolution (LTE) network has been deployed throughout the world, although the voice portion of the network (Voice over LTE) has lagged behind. The move to LTE and SIP has required a massive investment in new capital equipment and software by mobile service providers and most of that deployment dates from about 2012. On the business side the industry has experienced lots of turmoil during the period between 2001 and 2012.  One of the biggest equipment vendors, Nortel, declared Chapter 11 and chunks were sold off to other companies before the company went out of business. Many of the remaining vendors have gone through multiple mergers and acquisitions, greatly reducing both the number of telecom related companies and the number of employees.

The other major SIP endorser from 2001, Microsoft, has shifted its IP voice communications strategy numerous times, but one of it’s flagship offerings,  Skype for Business, is predominately based on SIP.  Microsoft’s use of SIP is primarily within enterprises, though they have also been a strong advocate of SIP Trunking, which enables enterprises to connect to the service provider IP phone network. In the meantime, Microsoft has many competitors in the enterprise voice and communications space, but SIP remains a dominant technology. Vestiges of circuit-based phone systems remain, but all of the major players have long since switched their current product and service offers to be IP-based.

IP and SIP are doing well, but voice is now a much smaller portion of the communications business and service providers make much of their money from data services. The era of premise-based equipment is also winding down, as the shift to IP has enabled companies to move both service provider and enterprise applications to the massive conglomeration of servers known as The Cloud. I’ll be writing more in future posts about lessons learned from the Telecom move to IP and on how the move to the Cloud is also causing major business disruptions.

If you or your company participated in the Telecom move to IP, feel free to weigh in with comments. If you’d like to explore strategies on how to evolve your application solutions or other products and services to in the face of rapid business and technical change, you can reach me on LinkedIn or on our web site.