IMS architecture may finally see success with LTE launches

After years of failing to live up to its hype, the IP multimedia subsystem (IMS) market may finally be taking off in 2009. But the technology's fate is linked closely to the success of Long Term Evolution (LTE).

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After years of failing to live up to its hype, the IP multimedia subsystem (IMS) market may finally be taking off in 2009. But the technology's fate is linked closely to the success of Long Term Evolution (LTE).

Even in the most optimistic view, the IMS market will remain relatively small in the near future.

Infonetics has projected that IMS equipment revenues will jump 74% in 2009, even as the much larger market for service provider VoIP equipment declines 29%.

"A lot of next-generation [VoIP] projects have been put on hold, or not done with the same volume we anticipated earlier, because of the economy," said Diane Myers, directing analyst at Infonetics. "The second part is that a lot of those projects have been moved to the IMS [architecture]."

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The big impetus for market growth, Myers said, would be the rollout of LTE, which is based in part on the IMS architecture.

Investments in the tapering service provider VoIP market still dwarf the nascent IMS equipment market: Infonetics found the former brought in more than $600 million in revenues in Q1 2009, while the latter earned only $63.7 million in the same period.

Still, the market for products based on the IMS architecture appears set to explode, after years of slow adoption.

In many ways, IMS's early failures to gain market mindshare were a result of its grand vision, which overshot customer needs.

"The challenge is that IMS came out with such big hype," Myers said. "But when you think about this, when you talk about the core of an operator's network, no one is going to be ripping and replacing their core network any time soon."

Also, there seems little hope that IMS's key selling point -- the easy rollout of new services and simple quality assurance -- will actually matter that much.

"An end user isn't going to care about IMS; that's the back end," Myers said. "For them, it's transparent."

Telecoms that are deploying LTE will care about those features. IMS is essential to supporting simultaneous data and voice services. The architecture helps ensure, for example, that an unruly download doesn't wreck the voice experience of a user. With major carriers like AT&T and Verizon readying themselves for an LTE build-out, things may finally be looking up for IMS – as long as nothing goes awry with LTE.

Tom Nolle, president of CIMI Corp., said he believes that is an outside possibility.

"IMS comes in when there's a conspicuous benefit case, and right now that looks like where there are going to be LTE deployments," he said.

Nolle cautioned, however, that IMS's success still hinges on three unanswered LTE questions:

  1. Is LTE deployment going to go as expected or faster? "If the answer to that is yes, then the major enablement for IMS is in place," he said.
  2. Will LTE deployment quickly result in the deployment of LTE handsets that actually provide voice services in 4G? If not, workarounds might be found that obviate the need for IMS. If carriers bring dual 3G voice/4G data phones to bear, that would also eliminate the need for the service separation that IMS provides.
  3. How do you make non-voice services relevant to 4G? If carriers do tap 3G for voice, IMS still stands a chance if they develop new, non-voice services that require strict quality-of-service control, but as of now those services are not a sure thing.
  4. Those caveats aside, Nolle was bullish on IMS's prospects, particularly compared with years past.

    "IMS is going to be, for the first time in its history, an important factor in procurements, probably later this year," he said. "And I've never been a big booster of IMS."

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