AT&T WebRTC Demo Shows Disruptive Threat

Perhaps nothing better illustrates the inherent tension of most web-related technology advancements for telcos and mobile service providers than WebRTC, an application programming interface (API) that gives a browser native voice, video and text communications capabilities.

Mozilla, AT&T and Ericsson are demonstrating a Web Real-Time Communication (WebRTC) proof of concept at Mobile World Congress 2013. The demonstration uses Ericsson’s Web Communication Gateway, the Mozilla Social API and WebRTC support in Firefox, and the AT&T API Platform to enable the Mozilla Firefox browser to sync with a user’s existing phone number and provide calling services without any plugins to download.

That might strike you as odd. AT&T is demonstrating the ability to conduct browser-based communications directly from a browser, without using communications network services. But there is a subtlety.

Why would AT&T, or any other mobile service provider, want to support a new capability that allows a browser to circumvent a carrier’s communication services by essentially decoupling communication services from the phone?

The answer is as complicated as the technology. On one hand, WebRTC potentially makes it much easier for browser apps to provide video, voice or text communications directly from inside the app itself. So WebRTC potentially disrupts the carrier voice, video conferencing and messaging revenue streams.

On the other hand, “with the right phone operator support,” WebRTC could do so in ways that provide at least some value to mobile service providers.

Tying WebRTC to SIP services in some way, or helping FireFox gain traction as a third major smart phone operating system, are some ways supporting WebRTC possiblyu could help service providers, even as WebRTC enables communications independently of the mobile network’s own voice, video conferencing and messaging services.

AT&T and other mobile operators might find WebRTC useful as a way of hanging on to some of the lucrative roaming revenues they now generate. WebRTC would make it easier for users to buy a cheap data SIM (subscriber information module), avoiding high data roaming charges, and then use the data service to place and receive calls and texts on a user’s domestic phone number.

On the other hand, mobile service providers cannot stop WebRTC, even as they might try to shape it in more “carrier friendly” ways. So even if WebRTC does pose one more “dumb pipe” dilemma for mobile service providers, it cannot be stopped.

And that’s the likely context: AT&T will try and shape the direction of WebRTC in ways that are least dangerous to its existing revenue streams, knowing WebRTC cannot be stopped.

The API originally was proposed proposed by Google, and is supported Mozilla and Opera, which might indicate some of the perspective on potential winners and losers.

AT&T probably believes all it can hope for is to shape WebRTC in the least damaging ways, which might be one way of explaining why it seems to be supporting a technology that could disrupt so much of its core business. On the other hand, AT&T probably also believes that such a migration of calling and communicating features to an embedded feature of most apps simply is inevitable, in any case.

Trying to fight WebRTC would benefit AT&T very little, if at all, since it cannot win that fight, in any case. But by participating in shaping the standard, AT&T might at least be trying to shape the API’s direction in some smaller ways that are less damaging to its own financial interests. In some ways, that mirrors the stance many service providers have had to take with other disruptive innovations such as VoIP or over the top messaging.

Nothing so far has blunted user adoption of such over the top services. So the issue is how service providers can shape the inevitable trends to some advantage. That appears to be what AT&T is doing with its WebRTC demo.

WebRTC is an open Web framework that is being standardized by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), and is intended to support communications functions such as voice, video calls and text messaging using only a Web browser. It includes the fundamental building blocks for high quality communications on the web such as network, audio and video components used in voice and video chat applications.

by Gary Kim

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