Convergence- the story of the blind men and the elephant?

(Last Updated On: April 14, 2006)

I find it very interesting that even 20 years later, we are still debating what convergence means? I finally got around to reading Geoff Huston’s article on convergence . If you get a chance to listen to Geoff, please do (see Won’t Get.Fooled Again?). Very interesting indeed. He makes his assumptions from an traditional or incumbent player standpoint. From that point of view it was interesting and very thought provoking. However, it can be said to be just one side of the story of what the elephant looked like to the 3 blind men.

He makes a point that convergence is THE story generated by the telcos trying to keep their monopoly. That for every new technology created, telcos used that technology to proclaim the reason for why one network makes efficiency and economic sense. They used ISDN, ATM and now IP to push for one network owned and managed by them, to keep their monopoly and increase their profit margins. Indeed very interesting and thought provoking, especially since his paper is meant to provoke vendors who are creating new technologies to bring about this one network convergence. He then goes on to prove that convergence as such is dead.

I take quite a different stance on that. I too have witnessed the convergence story over 20 years, from ITU World Telecom 1987 speaking thepromise of ISDN, to ITU-COM’88 speaking of convergence of voice, data and broadasting, to ATM during ITU World Telecom 91, etc etc. What I saw, was convergence meaning either convergence of industry players, convergence into one network, convergence of the customer premise equipment or convergence of regulations. “Multimedia� was a term used for one CPE that could do voice, data and video. The last 20 years have shown that convergence actually brings more plurality of industry players, networks, CPE rather than oneness.

I also saw convergence used as an argument by the non-traditional players to get into the telco business. With the divestiture of AT&T in the US, and deregulation and competition being driven around the world through GATT/WTO, new technologies also brought the barrier to entry low and new wireless and IP technologies. This brought new players into the fold. Today, Wi-fi, Wi-Max, Wi-Bro, WLL, etc have pushed the market for more players who also want to provide voice, data, and video. In fact beyond triple play, Quad play (adding the mobile convergence) is another push for “newer players� to get into the telco arena.

In other words, I see Geoff’s enunciation that “convergence� is a telco “myth or lie� and that it is� over� true if “convergence� is equated to “monopoly�. Not true from the point of view that convergence was also an argument by other non-telco players wanting to get into the telco field. I then agree with him that monopoly days are over, and plurality is the way of the future. Yes, in some instances we saw too much plurality than the market could handle and so today, we will see some vendor mergers and service provider mergers going on. This is more an optimization of the marketplace than a fulfilling of the promise of monopoly.

Meanwhile, regulators as far as I have seen, speak of convergence very much from the point of view of bringing in plurality. Definitely not as an argment to keep monopoly. Traditional telco regulations made distinctions of service provisioning from a licensing point of view to keep monopolies within different service turfs. One got an ISP license, a mobile licence, a wired license etc. Cable operators for instance we often not allowed to offer voice, and the move towards convergence regulations was now to allow a plurality of players to enter into each others market. Many regulators adopting deregulation and competition, adopted “convergence� by moving to adopt technology neutral regulations and to allow service providers to determine the type of technology that best meets the needs of the consumer. A wireline service provider now can also use mobile or wireless access for last mile or backbone, depending on locality and needs of the customer. This totally is the opposite of monopoly and that is the way regulators and other players seemed to have viewed convergence, in my opinion.

Even the user will demand convergence from a service provisioning point of view. IP enables different network transport and last mile modes to be interconnected and interoperable. A user wants to send files to a friend, and does not want to be bothered if his friend is on a GSM or ISDN or ATM network. He just wants it to reach him anywhere, anytime and anyplace.

IP is now seen to be the driver of this true “interconnectivity� and “interoperability� of networks. Quad play and plurality of players, networks, CPEs, etc is the wave of the future. Customers also wish to get simplified or one bill, and cheaper bills also. (of course there is a secondary issue if users will benefit economically from unified networks, as they may still continue to receive 3 bills from the same provider for 3 different services. Profitability for service providers versus costs consiousness and unified network push, will determine how the future will look like.)

So unlike the past promise of digital networks, ISDN, ATM, etc, IP is the closest to developing something as global and public as the PSTN network in terms of interoperability and interconnectivity. New IP technologies such as Wi-Fi phones and VOIP, skype etc pushes the bar further on the promise of true convergence (plurality). (Secondary question: Whether IP was designed to be the backbone is another question but then does the user want or the service provider have to offer 99.999% reliability as per previous telco networks. Mobile and VOIP has shown than users may be wiling to bear with less for lesser costs. Something regulators need to think about- is it to user interest to regulate QoS? In some countries such as Singapore, the regulator tried imposing QoS of telco on ISPs and they learnt to do otherwise. )

In conclusion, like the 3 blind men, there will continue to be different stories of what convergence means- depending if you come from a vendor background, traditional telco, new player or regulatory point of view. So unlike Geoff who takes a traditional telco perspective to convergence, even though I also see convergence as an old topic, I also recognise that it has different meanings and different stories, hence not quite dead as he makes it out to be.