RCR Wireless Reader Forum: With LTE, is video the new voice?

By Mark Edwards

View the article in RCR Wireless: August 22, 2011

Interest in the potential of 4G and LTE networks continues to grow as mobile operators such as Verizon, AT&T, Vodafone and others announce deployments. The question is, what will the killer app be on this new network technology? What services will be driving LTE adoption and revenues? What capabilities will users be clamoring for? What is the best way to demonstrate the value of LTE? And what will operators and service providers need to do in order to capitalize on the potential of their 4G and LTE investments?

Video calling is a good example of a service that can help take full advantage of the capabilities of these new network technologies. According to many out there, there are a number of reasons why mobile video calling services have so far failed to achieve widespread popularity. These include doubts over video call quality, interoperability between devices and questions about demand.

The last reason is clearly no longer true. Social media such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook have demonstrated — most recently during the unrest in the Middle East — that not only is a picture worth a thousand words, but a live video from the scene can have a significant impact on world events. Recent studies show that consumer demand for rich communications applications such as video calling/chat, video messaging, and real-time sharing of video content over social networks, portals and blogs is growing rapidly. According to a recent report from Cisco, two-thirds of the world's mobile data traffic will be video by 2015, with mobile video traffic more than doubling every year between 2010 and 2015. Skype reported that more than 40% of its Skype-to-Skype calls included video, and that was before the launch of their mobile video calling application. The recent acquisition of Skype by Microsoft only serves to further legitimize the growing demand for video communications.

The devices are ready for video communications as well. Manufacturers know that a smart mobile device without a video camera is considered passé, which is why most new smartphones, not to mention laptops, notebooks and the latest generation of tablets, come equipped with at least one video-capable camera. And people are starting to use those mobile video cameras — according to a recent study by iGR that surveyed more than 2,000 US consumers, 71.6% of people thought that a smartphone was the ideal device from which to video chat.

The remaining issue preventing the delivery and mass adoption of seamless, two-way, interactive video communication services seems to be concern over call quality. Arguably, the increased bandwidth, low latency and more resilient architecture of LTE could provide the last pieces in the puzzle, enabling service providers to provide a two-way, interactive video calling experience that is as simple, easy and convenient for consumers to use as the voice services we all take for granted.

But LTE is not a panacea. While LTE will provide more bandwidth, the fact is that bandwidth demands typically continuously scale to fill all available capacity. Even with LTE, it will be important for service providers to invest in technologies that help them dynamically manage bandwidth during the course of video communications. This not only helps to maintain the quality of the video calling session for all parties, it also ensures the most efficient use of network resources.

LTE's low latency and more resilient network architecture will improve the quality of both voice and video communications. Video is particularly vulnerable to latency and packet loss issues, which can cause jitter, stuttering, freezing and badly out-of-sync video and audio. LTE provides significant latency improvements, generally providing latency times that are on a par with fixed line communications. In addition, there is less packet loss on LTE than on 3G networks. But packet loss, particularly loss due to packet collisions, can still be an issue. Packet loss starts to be detrimental to subscribers when the percentage of the lost packets exceeds a certain threshold (in the region of 4% of the packets), or when the losses are grouped together in bursts — which tends to be the case by their nature. In those situations, even the best audio and video CODECs will be unable to hide the effects from the user — resulting in degraded voice and video quality. It is important for service providers to have technologies in place in their networks that can intelligently monitor, manage and adapt to latency and packet loss situations dynamically in order to maintain the quality of the experience at each endpoint.

Finally, LTE provides an opportunity for service providers to harmoniously “integrate” the voice and video calling infrastructures so that features and services of voice and video calling work seamlessly across both domains. The best possible option for most communication network providers would be to offer mobile video as just one of several options that can be employed within a communication session between parties, rather than as a completely separate service. The essential piece of technology for enabling this is a robust session manager, or “switch”, which serves the same general purpose as the switches used in voice telephony. This switch would support traditional call flows, (e.g., two-party calls, single-party calls, multi-party calls, network-initiated third-party calls, etc.), and would enable support for supplementary features and interactions with other telephony services such as voice mail and call forwarding. It would also either provide or utilize the media processing services that may be needed for a variety of devices, which may be using incompatible media formats, codecs, etc.

Other video services—live video streaming to blogs, portals and social networks; video messaging that is integrated into voicemail; real-time sharing of video and other rich media—can also benefit from LTE's capabilities and architecture. All of these types of services also benefit from intelligence in the network that optimizes bandwidth utilization, manages sessions, and maintains quality of service for all of the different endpoints involved in the conversation.

LTE may be the technology that finally tips the scales toward making mobile video services as ubiquitous as voice calling is today. But delivering mobile video services that are as intuitive, uncomplicated and robust as today's voice services may require something more than just a faster, better, more resilient network architecture. Delivering video services that are as easy to use as voice, are seamlessly integrated with voice calling services, and can be delivered with the policy-based quality-of-service (QoS) mechanisms available in a voice environment calls for additional intelligence within the network to manage and control video service functions. The combination of LTE and additional service and control functions in the network may be just what it takes to enable service providers to deliver high-quality voice and video as a single uniform and seamless set of high-quality rich media services.