What WebRTC means to Telecoms

As promised in the IMS World Forum summary article, here is a quick review of WebRTC (Web Real Time Communications).  WebRTC is a HTML5 standard being drafted by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the project began in early 2011.  The framework was open sourced in June 2011 by Google under a royalty free BSD (Berkeley Software Distribution) style license.  Google bought the company Global IP Solutions which owned the intellectual property.  The WebRTC framework includes iLBC (Internet Low Bitrate Codec), iSAC (Internet Speech and Audio Coder), G.711, and G.722 codecs for audio and VP8 for video.  These codecs include capabilities such as packet loss concealment and echo cancellation so they can robustly cope with a lack of guaranteed quality of service.  WebRTC enables applications such as voice calls, video chat, file sharing, messaging, white-boarding, gaming, human computer interaction, etc. without any client or plug-in download to run from a browser using simple HTML and JavaScript APIs.  Real time communications becomes pervasive on the internet.

The main goal of WebRTC is not interoperability with legacy systems, that’s up to the legacy systems to implement. It’s to open communications to new use cases and to web developers.  Imposing the complexity of SIP to web developers would have made it very hard to get traction. With the WebRTC spec, a great 1:1 video chat experience can be built with under 100 lines of JavaScript code, see apprtc.appspot.com.

On a couple of practical issues, WebRTC includes and abstracts key NAT (Network Address Translator) and firewall traversal technology such as STUN (Simple Traversal of User datagram protocol through Network address translators), ICE (Interactive Connectivity Establishment), TURN (Traversal Using Relay NAT), RTP-over-TCP (Real-time Transport Protocol over Transmission Control Protocol) and support for proxies.  Enabling sessions to work like Skype.  It also abstracts signaling by offering a signaling state machine that maps directly to PeerConnection.  WebRTC is built on the PeerConnection API, it represents what browser vendors will implement and expose to web application developers. Web developers can choose the protocol depending on their usage scenario (for example, but not limited to: SIP, XMPP/Jingle, etc…).  Essentially any browser becomes a SIP end point, a telephone, an ‘open’ Skype client, an end point for any real-time communication and control.

On the current status of browser implementations:

  • Google Chrome: integrated WebRTC into its developer channel in January 2012, allowing any website to take advantage of the WebRTC API.  The Google Talk plugin is a complex piece of software and the WebRTC platform is not yet deployed.  So Google is taking it one step at a time and not making promises about the migration of when Google Talk plugin will be migrated to the WebRTC framework.
  • Mozilla Firefox: Mozilla integrated WebRTC into its Firefox alpha in early 2012 which gave the browser the ability to perform audio mixing on a media stream.  In April 2012 Mozilla released a demo of WebRTC video calling that ran inside the Firefox browser
  • Internet Explorer: Microsoft has also started work on implementation of the API
  • Likely by the end of this year we’ll see Chrome and Firefox running WebRTC, that’s about 50% of the market, and the half of the market (mainly IE) will take a little longer, likely end of 2013.

Of course with any new technology there will be issues such as:

  • We’ll still likely have NAT and firewall issues, though about as often as we face them with Skype today;
  • Will it be standardized enough, will some of the proponents find ways to keep their islands and fragment the market;
  • Will we need SBCs (Session Border Controllers) to handle the connections?
  • STUN and ICE can take time to set-up so call set-up times could be longer than people are used to; and
  • People change habits slowly, the communication experience has been fixed for many decades, so things will not change overnight.

That’s the capabilities, but the implications of having an open communications client on most browsers on the planet is much more interesting:

  • Voice becomes just like all your other communications: organized into your preferred social or office tools.
  • It will be important for the IMS/RCS world to inter-operate with the WebRTC world, currently these browsers will be a closed book to IMS.  For RCSe to become pervasive, it cannot remain trapped in phones that have implemented the IMS/RCSe client.
  • For all the OTT (Over The Top) applications, they can now use their “directory service” i.e. your list of contacts also using their service to enable Viber / Skype / Whatsapp everywhere.  On your PC, smartphone, tablet, TV; and they can offer chargeable services without Apple taking 30%.
  • As long as you’re data connected, communications is in the cloud, people need only break out to PSTN when the other person is not data connected, or the call quality is too low due to their internet connection.  PSTN becomes the communications path of last resort.
  • The company’s website now becomes its call center front end.  A weblog becomes your personal communications assistant.
  • Communication service aggregators save customers running multiple clients on their phone, that would run in the cloud and be controlled from the browser.
  • Click to call doesn’t require an operator’s voice network, just access to the internet.
  • Communications becomes like using any application on a smartphone, users can add features, capabilities, people throughout a call, e.g. N-way calling finally becomes simple and obvious with a simple point and swipe.
  • Directory services become critical sources of value in connecting all the different IDs: telephone numbers, SIP IDs (IDentifier), web session IDs, other OTT IDs, etc.
  • VAS (Value Added Services) leaves telco.  Any web developer can create value and solve problems for customers, it the customer who will decide, and those developers who fail fastest win the innovation race.
  • Advertising finally enters the communications space, opening up business model innovation.
  • New CRM (Customer Relationship Management) methods: click from email, from webpage, from app, from TV.  The ability to communicate becomes embedded in most transactions.
  • QoS (Quality of Service) remains an issue, but for the people using Vonage and Skype over the years will attest, QoS is rarely an issue.
  • Your phone number is no longer relevant anymore. It’s a gateway to the past.  Customers will only know the PSTN is involved because of the poor audio quality.
  • Gaming becomes interesting as all the devices become controllers using gesture controls as well as the more traditional methods for network-based games.
  • And the list goes on…..

And a thank you to Serge Lachapelle (Google’s WebRTC product manager) for reviewing this article.

13 thoughts on “What WebRTC means to Telecoms

  1. Tsahi Levent-Levi

    These are great insights. The only question left is when will this get into mobile devices and which ones.
    If it does, then we will start seeing some real disruption.

  2. Alan Quayle

    Good question. Given the mobile device standard now appears to be a processor running at >1GHz and quad core. Its really only a matter of the browser software being updated. So expect that disruption soon!

  3. Dan York

    Great piece and you have some wonderful quotable bits in there!
    I particularly enjoyed “Your phone number is no longer relevant anymore. It’s a gateway to the past. Customers will only know the PSTN is involved because of the poor audio quality.”
    So true!
    I would just point out one correction to your first paragraph. You note that WebRTC is being standardized within the W3C. It’s actually a bit more complicated that that. The “WebRTC initiative” consists of standardization happening in *BOTH* the “WEBRTC” working group of the W3C and also the “RTCWEB” working group of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). The W3C is working on standardizing the interaction with HTML while the IETF is working on standardizing the underlying protocols. There is a *great* amount of work currently going on within each of the groups.
    Links to both the W3C and IETF working groups can be found on that webrtc.org site you reference in your article.
    Again, great piece and I love the quotable bits you sprinkled throughout!

  4. Tipper

    You are confusing a couple of intentionally deceptively named things in here. There is WebRTC the standard, which as Dan points out has got W3C and IETF involvement. There is also the deceptively named WebRTC the Google project which tries to accelerate the browser support of W3C standards through the open source assets.

  5. Alan Quayle

    Hi Tipper,
    You’re correct, however I have to set a balance in the article between helping people understand the basics of WebRTC functionality, describing the organizational stuff in WebRTC’s standardization and promotion (which most people will find boring unless deeply involved), and the focus of the article which is its implications to the telecoms industry. So the organizational stuff was severely summarized as it doesn’t at the moment aid understanding of the functionality or implications to telecoms.

  6. Juan

    Yes, WebRTC is a huge opportunity for telcos, developers and users:
    a) telcos would offer their telco capabilities as internet API, and to build an end-point based on WebRTC will not need anymore telco protocols knowledge and additional sw to download.
    b) developers will reach whatever users no matter with platform they use, only a WebRTC enabled browser will be needed.
    c) users will enjoy enriched comms ubiquitously, no matter with device they may use, and without needed to install and update apps.
    The next futuro communications will be based in communication capabilities exposed as REST (even the core is SIP bases as IMS) and a total freedom to create end-points using web access (WebRTC).
    We (the company I co-founded) are working in using WebRTC to provide OTT & ubiquitous access to RCS/RCS-e.

  7. Chris Cavigioli

    Any indicators that Microsoft (Metro IE) or Apple iOS would support WebRTC and when?

  8. Alan Quayle

    Hi Chris,
    To my knowledge Microsoft is working on WebRTC, but no official release date has been given. The assumption in the industry is release into the IE browser next year, though I’ve not seen anything officially confirming that. And on Apple, your guess is as good as mine. If WebRTC delivers value to customers and gives Android an edge then you’ll see it appear very quickly in iOS.

  9. shaiberger.wordpress.com

    10 months later, and this post (plus the comments) is still the best summary on the topic. I’ve sent a lot of people here. Props to Alan.

  10. Brad Nicholas

    Best telecom transformation post I have ever read, bar none. Kudos Alan for explaining so well how WebRTC will change everything.

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