WebRTC – light at the end of carriers’ tunnel?

When I attended the SDP Summit last week, I participated in the WebRTC workshop. WebRTCis a promising standard. In this post I provide a short technical intro, WebRTC’s potential to disrupt the industry, and what that could mean for carriers.

Towards the end of the post I also provide references to WebRTC APIs and a Getting Started guide.

Tech intro

WebRTC is an HTML5 standard framework that enables real-time transmission of multimedia content between browsers. No plugins needed (if the browser supports WebRTC natively, such as Chrome). WebRTC provides JavaScript APIs that bring VoIP functionality natively into browsers. And it is peer-to-peer, which makes me a bit proud as I wrote my master thesis about mobile content distribution in P2P networks in 2003.

WebRTC essentially makes access to various codecs very easy and encapsulates four components:

  1. Session management
  2. Voice engine
  3. Video engine
  4. Transport protocols

The figure below is from WebRTC.org and depicts that architecture. For a more detailed technical explanation please visit WebRTC.org.

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When I attended the SDP Summit, I had the pleasure of meeting Dan Burnett who is one of the main contributor and shaper of the WebRTC standard defined by W3C. Dan together with his co-author Alan B. Johnston wrote the WebRTC — APIs and RTCWEB Protocols of the HTML5 Real-Time Web (Second Edition) book, which I had the chance to have a look into. It is very detailed and comprehensive and certainly a great WebRTC reference. You can find a more detailed book review on Alan Quayle’s blog.

One specialty about WebRTC is that it does not prescribe how users are identified. There is no proprietary identification mechanism. The developer or vendor can totally freely decide how to implement this and can use existing standards such as email or OpenID or any existing proprietary ID such as Skype, Facebook, Twitter or Viber – or even the phone number (MSISDN) provided by a carrier.

What could this mean for the industry?

This technology could seriously disrupt the current mobile apps landscape. I am, however, I am a bit sceptic because these statements have been around for over a year and if something is discussed “as disruptive” for a while, in many cases it will just quietly disappear and replaced by another disruption. We saw that many times.

Here is the potential disruption, though:

The multimedia real-time communication can be implemented without native development across platforms by just using standard web technology. That would make many native apps obsolete. Web apps can integrate video and voice, which so far is the core asset of over-the-top (OTT) apps such as Skype, WhatsApp, or Viber. Hence, WebRTC can be disruptive not just for carriers’ business but also or in particular for the OTTs. OTTs do so well because many of them offer a great service but in a walled garden. It is in most cases impossible to cross their service boundaries. It is, for instance, impossible to call a Viber user from Skype. Because WebRTC does not prescribe the identifier, a developer could choose to implement anything or even create a mapping feature.

This – in theory — also has the potential to bring down a lot of (artificially created) boundaries: you could communicate across platforms, operating systems, device vendors, or appliances (call your mom on her smart fridge from your in-car entertainment system) – all you need is a browser.

What does this mean for carriers?

In principle, WebRTC enables communication between browsers for which no operators are required per se. But some of the WebRTC-based conversations will take place via cellular networks. This is the chance for carriers to provide the required connectivity – if they manage to exploit this opportunity, to adapt their subscription models and to find innovative ways to monetize WebRTC.

There are several carrier assets that could be exploited beneficially:

  • Carriers do provide the largest coverage of users with their networks and this network’s reliability is known to be outstanding.
  • Carriers can provide the necessary and configurable quality-of-service means through their infrastructure.
  • Carriers could provide the bridging of the gap between WebRTC and telephony services or even into landline networks.  
  • Most carriers possess an established brand enjoying a wide awareness and (mostly) trust. Carriers have a large customer base, customer knowledge/insight and relationships. These are all intangible assets that could be leveraged in the context of introducing WebRTC based services.

All the above could provide monetization opportunities, which will find adoption if the customer’s needs are respected accordingly.

In a way, this opportunity could serve carriers to increase revenues or gain some back from the OTTs (see earlier post about “Telcos are penguins – OTTs are orcas”).

Probably the main barrier for carriers to leverage that, is their lack of agility or inability to adapt to market changes quickly enough, which was confirmed at the WebRTC workshop during the SDP Summit, too.

In conclusion, there is an opportunity for carriers and it is realistic but thin. Time will show if they manage to leverage it.

At this workshop, Enrico Marocco from Telecom Italia presented a fantastic prezi that gives a great overview over WebRTC and also shows its weaknesses. Find it embedded at the bottom of this post.

Want to start coding with WebRTC?

Here is the API Reference Documentation and a Getting Started Guide.

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