If you pick up that telephone

Posted on Friday, May 03, 2019

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

Last week 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 data).

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 Poly).

My point is not that I had walked into some sort of ‘WABAC’ machine after spending a week with the Jetsons in Brooklyn.

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 the phones.

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 asymptote.

…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 collaboration system.

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 more

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 hot properties.

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.

Title Reference: 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 happening slowly…

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 Publishing LLC


[i] My 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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