Two major intertwined telecom events happened this week. First, South Korea's mobile operators shut down Joyn after the service failed to gain traction against OTT (over-the-top) alternatives. And second, 9 major international telecom operators announced they have formed a partnership that appears to be a way for them to tap into the growth potential of major internet and OTT brands.
Back in April 2008 at the IMS 2.0 World Forum that I chaired, I was bullish about the launch of the GSMA-driven Rich Communications Suite (RCS) Initiative. Rebranded Joyn by the GSMA in 2012, the joint effort of leading industry players including, among others, Nokia, Ericsson, France Télécom’s Orange, NTT DoCoMo, SK Telecom, Telefónica, and TeliaSonera had the goal of speeding up and facilitating the adoption of applications and services that provide an interoperable, convergent, and rich communication experience based on IMS (IP multimedia subsystem). At this time, IMS, which is the replication of the PSTN in an IP world, was just being rolled out in fixed networks to enable voice over IP (VoIP) services. It’s only when LTE (Long Term Evolution) deployments started that IMS finally penetrated mobile networks. But in the meantime, as HSPA+ (evolved high-speed packet access) and LTE provided more bandwidth to mobile devices, the quality of services provided by internet companies and OTT players improved dramatically.
Joyn was supposed to be telecom operators' answer to Skype, Viber, WhatsApp, and all the other OTT players that unabatingly steal voice revenue upon which they still depend. However, the reality shows that getting or keeping customers on board takes more than the replication of existing services. Pretty much everyone who launched Joyn has been disappointed so far, including early adopters SK Telecom (who launched Joyn in late 2012), KT Corp, and LG Uplus. And I was there and impressed by the numbers: SK Telecom reached the 1 million user mark in just 50 days. However, that early momentum quickly fizzled out as Joyn could not keep up with KakaoTalk, South Korea’s most popular OTT calling and messaging app.
Now that Joyn is gone and OTTs are get bigger and hungrier, surviving telecom operators have to find something else to maintain their undead status. Back to square 1: BT, Deutsche Telekom, Reliance Jio Infocomm, MTS, Millicom, Orange, Rogers, TeliaSonera, and TIM announced a Partnering Operator Alliance on February 15, 2016. The Alliance portrays itself as "an open network of like-minded operators worldwide with complementary geographical footprints." Its purpose is to exchange best practices on bringing partner offerings to market, jointly identify possible partnerships, and share knowledge on upcoming trends and services. Put another way, let everyone play in on their home turf and report interesting OTT trends and developments to the Alliance, and see if there is any opportunity to turn up new OTT-like services.
Things have changed dramatically since 2008. Internet brands and OTTs have grown fast and piled up huge amounts of cash on hand while telecom operators have seriously weakened. Good thing they don’t carry the level of debt they had in the 2002–2004 time frame because some large European incumbents could have disappeared. Now we’re starting with a new alliance. Will it make a difference? The jury is out.
Stéphane Téral is a Sr. research director, mobile infrastructure & carrier economics for IHS
Posted on 17 February 2016