I was traveling to Ribbon’s Perspectives 19 in Washington
D.C this week and this conference could not have been more different from last
week’s. While the Brooklyn 5G Summit was future oriented (6G!!!) and 100%
wireless, Perspectives 19 was about today and tomorrow, and a great deal of the
content had to do with fixed telecom.
…the things we did /
We did were all for real, not a dream
week’s summit was about data. Voice, if it was mentioned at all, was
referred to as an example of “high priority data traffic”.
At Ribbon, voice is the lead product (although they also do
One of Ribbon’s predecessor companies, Genband, bought
Nortel’s fixed telecom switching portfolio in 2011 when that unfortunate
company was being broken up and sold off. Ribbon still has substantial revenues
from that suite of products[i].
Verizon said in a panel it still had 2,000 legacy TDM (Time Division Multiplex)
switches in its network. Other North American carriers are in a similar –
although proportionally different – position. A large percentage of those
switches are former Nortel boxes or at least the technological heirs of Nortel
switches with a Genband or Ribbon face plate.
The strategic growth product line is Kandy, a suite of
SIP-messaging based software products, again, mostly used for voice. The
showpiece of the Kandy line is Ribbon’s WebRTC module which lets companies
embed chat and voice in their websites. AT&T has launched an online market
place for voice integration with re-branded Kandy as the core offering.
The solution showcase included three companies making desk
phones (Poly, Yealink and Grandsteam) and two selling headsets (Jabra and
My point is not that I had walked into some sort of ‘WABAC’ machine after
spending a week with the Jetsons
Quite the opposite.
The Ribbon conference was about today. Now. What operators
are making money from today. What enterprises are looking for. Today.
I just can’t believe
they’ve all faded out
Actually, they haven’t ‘faded out’ at all.
I spent much time this week thinking about technology
substitution curves and how long the asymptote can be. Those Nortel switches
started their ‘used and useful life’ (as the accountants referred to it) forty
years ago. Some / many / most will be in service five maybe even ten years from
now. The Verizon panelist reported that, this year, in 2019, the second decade
of the 21st century, they finally succeeded in removing the last of
the mid-1970s Carlson-Stromberg
switches. (Genband also bought this product line from Siemens as the German
company was getting out of the telecom business.)
Many old switches are still in service not only because they
still do the job but because the total cost of migration is daunting. A variety
of Ribbon customers ranging from the Pentagon to Hertz mentioned that one of
the barriers to swapping out old PBX and key systems is the cost of changing
Another barrier is the feature sets that TDM switches have
built in but are complicated to replicate in IP. These features may have few
users but those that need them have often built entire business processes
around them. Old habits die hard and as the Pentagon speaker pointed out, if
the one user of Feature XYZ is a four-star general…
Finally, there is regulation which constrains the migration
paths of fixed line carriers. I have been hearing about the problem of
emergency access during power failures since the dawn of IP telephony. It was discussed
again this week at a session for Ribbon’s rural telephony customers. (Just in
case some readers are too young to know this, copper-based phones – what we
used to call POTS phones – are powered from the central office. If your house
power goes out, backup power at the switch means you can still call which means
you can still call emergency services. Try saying “Hey Alexa: Call the fire
department” during a power outage.)
Roy Amara is known for the ‘law’ that “We tend to
overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the
effect in the long run.” A corollary perhaps is that we tend to assume way too
steep a slope to technology adoption curves which means we have way too flat an
…give me some time,
I’m living in twilight
It was humbling for me to admit that my article from a few
weeks ago on technology
and terminology evolution was probably over done, maybe even arrogant.
I rarely use a fixed phone today and have not for probably a
decade, nearly two. I work from home now but even when I had an office there
was no (working) phone on my desk. Anyone who wants to call me or I want to
call is on mobile, these days mostly through WhatsApp. Only my bank insists
that I have a fixed phone and even they call me on my mobile. If the fixed
phone rings at home, I do not answer it. I know it is not for me. OK I answer
it if no one else is in the house. It is still not for me.
For collaboration, I use my laptop, my mobile or sometimes my
iPad. I would not think of buying a fixed phone with a ton of collaboration
features built into it, but then I am ‘SOHO’. I do not work in a big office.
Thus, I was surprised by the offerings from the desk phone
manufacturers at the Ribbon event which compete with Cisco IP phones and no
doubt models from other manufacturers. I had forgotten such things existed
(even though I used to run the Bell Canada division that sold them) or assumed
that everyone just connected their personal cellphone to the corporate
Seeing them was another reality check that fixed voice is
much more important, especially in the enterprise market, than I had realized
from my narrow, too-personal perspective.
Let it ring forever
People still want to talk. They especially want to talk when
they need to solve a problem, which is why there are still lots of call centers
out there and why WebRTC and other technologies to embed voice in web pages are
Ribbon recently acquired Anova, an analytics company
oriented to mobile networks and much of the strategic discussion was about the
company getting into data. Last year the company bought Edgewater Networks
which is synergistic with Ribbon’s core Session Border Controller (SBC)
business but also brought SD-WAN capabilities to the portfolio. The undeniable
long-term industry trends are wireless / mobile and data. Ribbon is more than
aware of the imperative to move into these sectors.
But there is much work to be done today with fixed voice,
clients need it and there is money to be made by providing it.
Maybe if I wrote the title “If you pick up that tel-eh-phone” it would be more
recognizable. Maybe not. Or if I had used “Oh, oh, telephone line” as the title.
Not yet, huh? OK, they’re from Electric Light Orchestra’s Telephone
Line, the second track on 1976’s New World Record. The
song was a huge hit for ELO, getting to number 1 in Canada
(which is maybe why it is memorable for me) and, although only number 7 in the
US, it was the band’s biggest success up until that moment. The album was
released in September 1976 although the song only came out as a single in May
of the following year. I was in Montreal in September of ’76 so I would have
heard the LP on CHOM-FM, the city’s album-oriented rock station. (I am not a
big ELO fan apart from Roll
Over Beethoven which is spectacular.) The significance, beyond the obvious telecom
reference, is that I started working for Bell Canada in September 1976. I
remember much talk about the DMS at the time although Wikipedia says that the
first one was only installed in October 1977
and then in the US. A Bell Canada speaker mentioned several times that the DMS
was over forty years old. I have been in the industry nearly 43 years which
means the DMS and I started at Bell Canada roughly at the same time. (I
slightly predate DMS. Hard to believe.) He also mentioned several times that
the former DMS were now coming out of the network… He did say that was
I am not “coming out of the network” any time soon so I may
both predate and postdate DMS.
Telephone Line by Jeff Lynne lyrics © Sony/ATV Music
assumption based on the company’s emphasis on the product line at this customer
event. The company does not report segmented revenue results.
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