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Verizon's LTE vendor selection boosts nascent IMS market

Verizon's choice of Alcatel-Lucent to provide its IMS backbone gives the technology a boost in 2009, but most of the IMS action is likely to take place in Europe.

When Verizon Wireless announced at the recent Mobile World Congress that Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson were the vendors it would use to build its LTE backbone, the carrier also validated a growing, if nascent, IMS market that many analysts saw as stalled a little over a year ago.

"IMS will be a cornerstone technology in the evolution of Verizon's services infrastructure," the company said in statement naming Alcatel-Lucent and NSN as the company's primary IMS vendors. "Verizon plans to offer IMS-based IP converged applications and services on its wireless and landline broadband networks. LTE will be one of the key wireless access networks linked to the IMS technology."

To be sure, the IMS (IP multimedia subsystem) that Verizon intends to deliver is a more piecemeal approach and a far cry from what its original backers envisioned, but green-field deployments like Verizon's planned LTE network have proven a perfect opportunity for the technology to enter the market, particularly in European countries.

"IMS is growing quite well, but it's growing from a small base," said Diane Myers, directing analyst for Infonetics. The current total market for IMS is less than $200 million, she said.

IMS changes and market projections

That market is expected to balloon to more than $2.3 billion by 2013, driven in the next year by new wireless deployments that rely on the all-IP efficiencies -- and added feature sets -- which IMS promises.

"In 2009, the operators who are going to be deploying IMS are really going to be the mobile operators," Myers said. In many cases, it's these mobile carriers, particularly in Europe, that are facing stronger competitive pressure to stay ahead both feature-wise and network-wise. And as carriers move to implement new networks, it's a less painful time to upgrade as opposed to re-architecting existing networks.

The target market is quite different from what it was even a year ago, however.

Last year, many European and some Asian fixed line operators were making the leap to IMS, Myers said. Having missed the VoIP-upgrade boat a few years ago, these carriers saw IMS as a chance to leapfrog technologies, giving them an IP backbone while future-proofing their networks, at least for a short while.

Myers said cable operators had also planned to get in the game this year, but the credit crunch is forcing them to order their priorities more carefully.

"We had anticipated purchases being made in 2009 by cable operators, but that will likely get pushed ... to 2010 or 2011," she said. Cable operators will spend the capital budgets they've already allocated, but with most of them already having at least VoIP offerings, IMS does not top their priorities list.

Indeed, service providers' ability to replicate many of IMS's features -- through SMS, MMS, and vanilla IP connectivity -- without IMS has given them breathing room in terms of upgrade time frames, meaning that unless a major network change is under way, IMS is on the backburner.

Myers said that most networks will slowly move toward IMS as customer demand for the features that can't be easily replicated rises and the need to support legacy systems declines, making an all-IP network practical.

Some of these advanced features push the boundaries of unified communications offerings, such as giving status information about your contacts -- whether they are on a call, where they are located, or whether an IM or text message is preferred -- all integrated into the network information.

However the market gets there, it is not likely to be led by U.S. carriers, which -- with the exception of Verizon -- have been pretty passive about IMS.

Myers attributes their lack of enthusiasm to their less competitive markets and the fact that previous investments have given them VoIP and other IP capabilities, meaning that an IMS move would be less a leapfrog jump and more of a costly step forward.

"The U.S. operators are definitely maintaining a presence in [IMS]," Myers said. "But they're not driving what's coming along."

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