Convergence is happening all the time as once-disparate technologies come closer together until they merge into one. In the handheld device market, we’re seeing cellular phones and PDAs come together into one device; in the home entertainment environment we’re seeing how the PC and traditional consumer electronics devices like the television and hi-fi are rapidly merging into one system; and in the telecommunications environment users are asking for the same ubiquity of experience they’ve come to expect from technology. Telecommunications was liberalised almost two years ago, a new fixed-line operator has entered the market and, in theory, there’s nothing standing in the way of rapid convergence in this sector. But is it actually happening? If so: where? And, if not: why?
For a recently-liberalised environment, the South African telecommunications sector hasn’t been as quick to either offer or take up converged services as one might have expected.
Given the vocal calls for liberalisation, and the high levels of incumbent-bashing that South African companies and alternate operators indulged in, it’s not inappropriate to have expected more action once the playing fields were levelled.
Could it be that local organisations have been led, by history, to believe that one supplier should supply all their needs? Or is it because South African suppliers harbour a deep distrust of one another and hesitate to co-operate? Could it simply be that in their haste to boot out the incumbent, early adopters burnt their fingers so badly that it’ll be a long time before they embrace change again?
Whatever the reason, the market is certainly stagnant as regards convergence, says Gopal Govinder, director of CommuniCom Technologies.
Voice over IP (VoIP), the area of convergence the companies stand to gain from the most, has so far failed to set the world alight, he adds.
Early VoIP installations tended to be less reliable than many companies expected and prompted a belief that the technology itself was flawed.
“A lot of service providers seem to have approached VoIP very aggressively and tried to take on established suppliers head-on, promising to revolutionise the way customers work.
“There was a lot of acronym-throwing as well, which is a bad way to introduce new technology: customers are not interested in the acronyms – they want to know what it costs and what they’re getting.”
It was almost inevitable, says Govinder, that many early installations failed to work properly, and many customers who had adopted new suppliers had to return to the incumbent.
“Telkom has been a monopoly for a long time, and some operators want to knock it off its platform. But it’s not working: customers are really not interested in anything other than price and service.
“So far, there hasn’t been a lot of strategic thinking about the introduction of VoIP.”
Despite the halting start, Govinder believes convergence will happen – but at a slower pace and as a result of careful business planning.
“The benefits of convergence will come over a period of time,” he says. “There needs to be a lot of collaboration between technology vendors.
“A lot of the infrastructure technologies are inter-related and companies need to be able to roll them out easily. This will reduce the cost of the infrastructure and therefore the final price that the end user pays.
“There also needs to be collaboration among operators and service providers. ISPs, the fixed line operators and the mobile network operators need to work together.”
True convergence means that all network offerings need to work together seamless, Govinder adds, and this means all the operators have to be committed to working together.
“Customers need to start insisting on it,” he says.
Service providers are largely to blame for the poor uptake of new, converged services, probably because they addressed the market as a revenue opportunity, Govinder adds.
“It’s important to remember that convergence is not about replacing existing technology – it’s about integrating different technologies to give benefit to the man in the business.
“I would urge businesses to start collaborating; to use what they already have and to build on it.”
Despite all the hype around telecommunications convergence, the reality is simply that fixed line operators are adding mobile services and vice versa.
This is according to Dr Jan Mrosik, CEO of Siemens Communications, who says it really boils down to more choice as to where customers can buy their services.
“At the end of the day, the user doesn’t really care what network he’s using – he simply wants services at the level he is used to.
“The challenge for service providers is to provide the end-to-end networking seamlessly.”
The technology is already available for different networks to behave the same across different access technologies to offer users a consistent interface and features. The challenge, however, is to allow users to cross seamlessly from one network to another; for example from the office LAN to 3G while travelling in the car and on to the ADSL network at home – all in the same user session.
“At this point users cannot go from one network to the other,” says Mrosik. However, the equipment exists to allow handovers to take place, while operators are negotiating the process as well.
“It is the demand for always-on connectivity that is driving network convergence; connectivity has in fact become a defining characteristic of modern society.
“As people increasingly seek consistency of experience from their networks – whether at home or in the office – network convergence is delivering that ubiquitous and seamless connectivity,” he explains.
The acceleration of enabling technology is a critical enabler; the first taste of broadband in South Africa has seen high-speed connectivity gaining rapid acceptance, while the introduction of options – now possible within the relaxed regulatory environment – for ever higher connectivity speeds has occurred at an impressive rate.
“ADSL, for example, was first introduced in 2003 and today consumers can choose from 1Mbps ADSL from a fixed network, or from mobile networks that can deliver up to 1,8Mbps through 3G and its ‘accelerator’, HSDPA – and there are many other options.