Issue No. 06 - November/December (2005 vol. 7)
pp: 6, 8-9
DOI Bookmark: http://doi.ieeecomputersociety.org/10.1109/MITP.2005.151
New Protocol to Help Blend Telecom Services
As easy as it is to connect these days by Internet, cellular, Wi-Fi, and plain old telephones, the networks that make this possible still can't communicate very well with one another. Technological standards tend to vary from network to network and the traditional phone system and the Internet use completely different protocols. Even a single mobile provider's voice calls and data services are largely separate and incompatible. But that may change soon.
According to the Associated Press, there's building momentum for a new standard that could enable network operators to bridge such gaps and open the way for melded services such as simultaneous walkie-talkie and video exchanges between cell phones and landlines.
The current standard—Internet Protocol for Multimedia Subsystems (IMS)—is only a springboard for convergence between future services, not today's, nearly all of which would need to be adapted or replaced over time to enable them to intermingle, according to the article.
From simple phone calls, voice mail, and call waiting, to wireless text messaging and multimedia downloads, most existing telecom services were originally designed to perform their specific functions as if walled off into distinct silos on the network.
The fact that most network traffic is now digital matters little. Despite the growth of phone services based on Internet standards—known as Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP)—most wireline and wireless calls aren't transmitted in IP from start-to-finish; calls get converted to traditional phone protocols on either or both ends.
And while a growing number of non-voice services are IP-based, interspersing their digital packets down a shared network pipe, many applications still need to create a virtual "session," not unlike the path of a regular phone call, between a user's device and the network.
IMS attempts to knock down these silos by introducing a common interface for creating sessions. By doing so, data can be intertwined or bridged across networks to different devices. The technology has been generating buzz within the industry for several years, but recently took a big leap off the drawing board with a series of contract awards by some of the biggest US telephone companies.
In November, BellSouth Corp. announced it was buying IMS network systems from Lucent Technologies Inc. Two weeks prior to that, AT&T and Cingular Wireless, also signed on to buy Lucent's IMS technology.
So far, only a smattering of foreign operators and one major US company, Sprint Nextel Corp., have actually begun deploying IMS, and largely in a way that's invisible to customers.
For example, Sprint rolled out a walkie-talkie service, ReadyLink, for its cell phones in 2003 using a pre-standard version of IMS. But ReadyLink differs little from the non-IMS "push-to-talk" from other cell phone providers, offering none of the multimedia combinations IMS can enable.
In fact, when Sprint's recently acquired sister company, Nextel, added a new photo-sharing component to its push-to-talk service earlier this month, it did so without the purported magic of IMS.
Like just about every existing cell phone application, Nextel's walkie-talkie feature was essentially created in a software vacuum, programmed with no emphasis on interoperability with other services.
So while IMS might make it easier to write a walkie-talkie program from scratch and add new features down the road, Nextel has to consider the millions of customers already using its very popular non-IMS service.
"You don't want to fix something that's not broken," said Rob Prudhomme of inCode, a wireless industry consulting firm. Carriers "have a lot of services running before IMS, so their challenge is how to migrate all the services they already have to IMS without incurring a huge cost."
Likewise, though Sprint used IMS for ReadyLink, the company relied on proprietary technologies for the photo services it launched a year earlier, making integration into a "push-to-photo" capability like Nextel's more complex.
Such complications probably make IMS a commitment best suited for major network overhauls—which may help explain why Sprint, AT&T, and Cingular are now venturing down that path. All three have placed big-money bets on next-generation network technologies.
Sprint, which is rolling out a speedier wireless data technology called EV-DO, expects to use IMS as the underpinning for some ambitious new services bridging cell phones and televisions as part of the company's new alliance with four of the nation's biggest cable TV providers.
The new capabilities, expected to arrive by mid-2006, include using a cell phone to view live TV broadcasts, check the program listings, program a digital video recorder, or even watch programs stored on that DVR. Back in the living room, set-top boxes might be equipped for push-to-talk conversations with cell phone users.
Report Warns of Erosion in IT and Science Sectors
A recent report on science and technology in the United States entitled, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future," states that the future of IT in this country looks grim.
In a recent appearance before Congress, Norman Augustine, retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corporation, elaborated on the report's findings, which conclude that only a comprehensive and coordinated federal effort can reverse the erosion of US science and technology markets.
Augustine, who now chairs a national committee on prospering in the global economy, told the House of Representatives Committee on Science, that "America faces a serious and intensifying challenge with regard to its future competitiveness and standard of living. Further, we appear to be on a losing path."
His committee of 20 national science, technology, business, and policy experts all seem to agree that the situation calls urgently for action. "Without quality jobs, our citizens will not have the purchasing power to support the standard of living which they seek, and to which many have become accustomed; tax revenues will not be generated to provide for strong national security and healthcare; and the lack of a vibrant domestic consumer market will provide a disincentive for either US or foreign companies to invest in jobs in America," Augustine said.
He cited projections from Goldman Sachs analysts indicating that, in about a decade, 80 percent of the world's middle-income consumers will live in nations that are not considered industrialized now.
Augustine said that the end of the Cold War, the expansion of aviation, and the development of technology have eliminated barriers, unleashing almost "three billion highly motivated, often well-educated, new capitalists" into the job market.
Augustine also pointed to the following as proof that the "Death of Distance" is driving high-end jobs rapidly offshore:
"The 24-hour workday is here, with US companies receiving and testing software written overnight in India and returned there for production again in the evening. Back-office firms operate in countries across the globe. Drawings for American architectural firms are produced in Brazil. Call centers are in India, where employees are learning to speak with a mid-western accent. X-rays and CAT scans are taken in the US and read by radiologists on other continents."
High tech exports have fallen from 30 percent 20 years ago to 17 percent now, while the trade balance has plummeted more than $50 billion, in less than 15 years, from $33 billion to below $24 billion last year.
"A company can pay 11 engineers in India for the price of one in the United States and said it's going to get more difficult to attract outsiders to America if the job market is unstable and work visas remain difficult to obtain," Augustine said.
While the standard of living is high now, it will not be if current trends catch up, he said.
"The consequences of these developments are profound. Soon, only those jobs that require near-physical contact among the parties to a transaction will not be opened for competition from job seekers around the world. How will America compete in this rough and tumble global environment that is approaching faster than many had expected? The answer appears to be, 'not very well'—unless we do a number of things differently."
The report offers 20 actions to bolster competitiveness. Among these recommendations are to: increase the country's talent pool by improving mathematics and science education in America's schools; sustain and strengthen commitments to long-term basic research; develop, recruit, and retain top students, scientists, and engineers from inside the US and abroad; and ensure that America is the premier place for innovation.
Those actions would likely require changes to existing laws and financial support from reallocating or increasing budgets. The report was commissioned by Congress and can be down- loaded for a fee from the National Academies Press Web site at http://www.nap.edu/catalogue/11463.html.
Global Mail Services Next Frontier for RFID
Postal and courier mail services are expected to become the second largest market for radio frequency identification (RFID) item- level tagging following the retail sector, according to technology research firm IDTechEx.
The technology already is being deployed by carriers to secure access to vehicles, trailers, and sorting and shipping areas. "We see a strong move toward revamping total postal systems to make it much easier to send and receive the correct package more promptly with better cost and security control," said Peter Harrop, chairman of IDTechEx. "That is why Arabia is rolling out smart post boxes, and Korea is looking to change its receiving and shipment to a holistic system with near real-time traceability."
China, Korea, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, Germany, and the United States are all moving forward with deploying RFID to track packages. RFID can facilitate product recall and postal companies are finding ways to fit the labels on cases and pallets of consumer packaged goods at the request of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other retailers with mandates. IDTechEx said that by 2016, the United States will contribute 25 percent to the total market, with Europe contributing another 25 percent and China 50 percent to the $3 billion RFID market geared toward postal and courier services.
Further bolstering adoption in this sector are declining RFID label prices. Retail mandates are creating a yearly demand for billions of labels affixed to cases and pallets, reducing the cost for services and equipment from tags to readers to printers. IDTechEx said the average price for an ultra high frequency RFID label is approximately 15 cents. Other factors contributing to adoption include increased adoption of high frequency (13.56 MHz RFID) applications in libraries, laundries, and ticketing agencies. IDTechEx said high frequency labels and systems that operate between two and ten meters are favorable to item-level tagging for postal and courier services. This technology is available from companies such as Miyake, DAG Systems, Subtropic, Tagsense, and UPM Rafsec.
IDTechEx expects that by 2020 postal and carrier services will label one trillion packages and letters annually, making this the second largest application of RFID in the world, followed only by the retail supply chain.