[Apple has been trumpeting their â€˜new’ iPhone 4 FaceTime service, but where’s the novelty? Mobile video telephony has been around for at least 8 years now. Guest author Tsahi Levent-Levi reviews the state of the mobile video telephony market, the barriers to its adoption and what the next 8 years hold]
The article is also available in Chinese.
Mobile video telephony has already been in the market for over 8 years, in most 3G phones, but have you ever used it? Do you even know if your phone supports it? If your phone has a front facing camera, chances are it supports mobile video telephony. And if you live in Europe and Asia, chances are you have a front facing camera.
With millions of users around the world equipped with mobile handsets capable of video calling, we should have seen more wide use of this technology. Why hasn’t this happened and where exactly is this industry going?
The 8-year history of mobile video telephony
Mobile video telephony started almost a decade ago. Sometime during 2002 I also joined the effort. It started by taking the consumer ISDN video telephony solution (that didn’t catch up), based on an ITU-T standard called H.324, repurposing it for mobile handsets and renaming it 3G-324M for no apparent reason. At that time, three organizations were involved: the ITU-T, the 3GPP (which focused on standardization) and the IMTC (dealing with interoperability between devices).
In 2002, the companies involved with interoperability were Ericsson, Dilithium Networks, Packet Video, Radvision, Sharp, and Siemens. What handsets were on the market? There was one from Sharp and a couple of others from the Japanese market, only available in Japan. By 2004 there were 14, including Motorola, Nokia, Qualcomm Samsung and Vodafone. It took about 4 years until you could safely say that each handset could connect to another and get bidirectional video.
Throughout the years, the main stakeholders of the standardization and interoperability were the vendors providing the protocol stack implementations such as Radvision and some select handset and chipset vendors – namely Qualcomm, Nokia and Ericsson. The rest took a more passive approach, either by making sure that their handsets interoperate or by relying on others to provide those capabilities. When it came to certification and validation of the handsets, the main stakeholders were usually the service providers themselves.
Mobile video telephony today
Fast forward to today, and you will notice a few important improvements to the initial standards:
- 3G-324M (a 3GPP specification), along with a GCF validation process, ensures that any handset coming to the market with video telephony can interoperate with any other handset out there. Putting the GCF test cases in place was a process of over a year, discussing the various tests that should be included and the creation of the ecosystem around it – mainly test labs and testing tools.
- Operators have mandated the inclusion of 3G-324M support in all 3G handsets that they sell to their customer base. Or at least that was the case up until the iPhone came along.
- Roaming agreements between operators in Europe and Asia have been put in place so that you can now dial an international mobile video call to others. With a few exceptions (dialing from Israel to Japan, for example) this service works flawlessly.
- Call setup time has reduced from 7-15 seconds to below 1 second using additions to the standard. This was pointed as a barrier for consumer acceptance of the service, and operators have worked to successfully remove the barrier.
These days, standardization and interoperability efforts on mobile video telephony are limited. For the past 2 years it has been quiet in both fronts. The main reason? The standards have matured and interoperability is usually a solved problem. But still – consumer adoption is lacking.
So what went wrong? We’ve got enough phones supporting video telephony, interoperability is as seamless as in voice calls, and connection times are shorter. Where’s the usage we’re all waiting for?
Well, have you ever made a video call? Or received one? As someone who developed and then licensed 3G-324M technology to other vendors I did my share of video calls. Most of them work related. Very few were personal.
The sticking points of mobile video telephony adoption
Operators have been trying for years to get people on board their mobile telephony solutions, alas with little or no success. Several reasons have been offered to explain the lack of adoption. Yet none of these stand up to scrutiny.
- Pricing: some argued that the high prices of video calls (60 cents a minute in some countries but the same as normal voice calls in others) is the reason why people don’t use it. I think it is irrelevant, especially when people don’t really know how much they pay for the service. People didn’t use it a lot even when operators provided it at the cost of regular voice calls, and at the same time people are using the SMS service which usually has ridiculously high pricing.
- Video is unnatural: people like to see others but don’t like to be seen. Great, but how do you deal with the fact that for Skype, 36% of Skype to Skype calls are video calls? It can only mean that with the right implementation, people are quite happy to adopt video calling.
- The missing video button. People take huge amounts of images on their iPhones without having a dedicated camera button. Most use SMS all the time – teenagers use it as their primary method of connection with their friends, and there’s no SMS button either. On most handsets, doing a video call requires the same effort as sending an SMS (minus the typing the message part). While it would be nice to have a video button for video calling, it probably isn’t the reason why people don’t use it.
While the reasons above have some truth in them, I think they are limited in their importance. There are other, more crucial barriers of adoption:
- Video Quality: mobile video telephony today uses very little bandwidth. 64 kilobits per second. Compare it to a high definition video channel of 2-4 megabits per second and you have a truly low grade video in hand. While handsets had low resolution displays that was just fine, but today, when VGA is the norm and higher resolutions are coming to smartphones, there will be need for more bandwidth. Once more bandwidth is available, there will need to be better processors capable of compressing video – but that’s just a matter of time according to Moore’s Law.
- Coverage: in most countries, 3G coverage is partial, i.e. doesn’t cover the entire population covered by 2G. It means that if you want to call someone using video, you need to know where he/she is – your call might fail simply because the other party has no 3G coverage.
- Usability: when you interact with a mobile device today, you don’t hold it at head height – you hold it a lot lower than that. Video telephony requires holding the phone higher. It is for the same reason I surmised that the iPad won’t have a front facing camera – mobile devices don’t provide the experience you get by having a video call in a conference room or from your laptop. Camera positioning is key here: on mobile handsets, the front facing camera forces the user to hold his hand in front of his face in an uncomfortable position – especially taking into consideration that today’s video calls are usually long ones. Add to that the fact that you need to deal with the phone’s speakers or connect a headset, add the noisy surroundings, and you have a recipe for bad experience.
Once the iPhone came along, operators changed their focus. From trying to get video telephony to be adopted and finding additional multimedia services, they went to putting their hands on shiny smartphones with touch capabilities. Apple has changed the attitude from “killer application” to the long tail of an application store. And now that the slew of Android devices are expected to come out, the resurgence of mobile video telephony requirements from handset vendors is being seen.
While bandwidth and processing power will be solved naturally with faster, better and more efficient processors and networks, usability requires real innovation. It makes it the most critical component of all. The one to solve this problem will open up the mobile video telephony market for the masses.
Where is mobile video telephony used?
While we have no real mass adoption of mobile video telephony, there have been some notable trials that have been going on for the past several years around the world.
The concept of mobile video telephony as a killer application was a wrong one, but the use of it as a building block by various applications can be found:
- Video Mail: video mail support has been deployed by multiple operators worldwide. It allows people to leave video messages from one to another and retrieve them later. In the same way that voice mail services suffered from the rise of SMS, so does video mail, which was already disadvantaged by the limited use of video calling services.
- Mobile TV and video on demand (VOD): while there are other options for mobile TV, mobile video telephony provides a solution that is standardized and available across most handsets on the market. Where mobile TV is fragmented between standards, video telephony can come to play. In Israel, for example, you can hook up to news channels from the phone in this way.
- Entertainment TV: Mobile TV is nice, but adding interactivity was thought to be a killer application, especially for sports programs and reality shows. Trials of connecting video calling with sporting events and big brother have been done, but none have caught up.
- PC-to-mobile: video calling over the desktop is used a lot more than over 3G. That being the case, the ability to bridge the two has been tried by a number of operators around the world.
- Banking: banks have warmed up to video communications. They use it to enable access to specialists in remote branches or to allow people to contact a bank clerk remotely. They offer some of these services from mobile handsets as well – using mobile video telephony. Another interesting use of video communication in banking is accessing ATM services through video calling instead of voice calling.
- Visual call centers: this is an easy one. Wherever there is a voice call center, a video one that allows mobile phones to call by video makes sense.
- Healthcare: Mobile video telephony is used today around the world by doctors to communicate between peers and consult with specialists. An example of such a use is an Israeli hospital where doctors use mobile phones during their daily rounds and surgery procedures.
- Hard of Hearing (VRS): Video Relay Services enable deaf and hard of hearing people to communicate with the world by way of a mediator who communicates with them through the use of sign language using video communications. The ability to do that on the go adds an important mobility aspect to the service.
What becomes apparent from these use cases is that video is not used as a bidirectional conversation, but rather as a one-way real-time video communication for the consumer who wants to see the person they are talking to.
The healthcare example really is a key one here. Mobile video telephony is used today and can be used even more when expert advice is needed from people who are on the go. It is where this system excels.
We do have mobile video telephony, with all of its benefits and faults. But where are we going with it? The next step will be a migration of the service from circuit switching to packet switching – to become all-IP. This will require two major changes:
- Migration from WCDMA/HSPA to LTE, where an all-IP network will be the norm and network capacities and bandwidths allocated for each phone will increase.
- Replacement of 3G-324M with a different standard that runs over an IP network. Probably as part of IMS (IP Muiltimedia Subsystem).
While Apple just came out with their front facing camera and FaceTime service on the iPhone, it is still quite limited: it runs over WiFi, only between iPhone 4 devices and uses a protocol that Apple plans to open. For mobile video telephony to become a valid solution it needs to use an open standard, run everywhere and be interoperable across devices.
When will that happen? At the very least 8 years from now it will require the creation of the necessary ecosystem of companies who care. The problem is that these companies are currently focused on providing the basics of the LTE infrastructure. This requires them to rethink their voice and SMS technologies in initiatives such as VoLTE (Voice over LTE). Once they will have the attention span to deal with mobile video telephony over IP networks, they will have a lot of work to do. Standardization takes time and patience.
The winner though won’t be the one who brings better bandwidth or improved video quality to his mobile device. It will be the one who will solve the usability issue. Why? Because it is the hardest of the problems, and it is the toughest problem to solve. Bandwidth and processing power will be solved for all competitors – solving usability will be an innovation that can provide real added value. The moment that happens, you can be sure that mass adoption of mobile video telephony will become a reality.
[Tsahi Levent-Levi is Director of Technology and Solution at Radvision. He has been involved with the mobile video telephony market for 8 years, dealing with design, development, standardization, interoperability and marketing of such technologies. You can follow his personal blog at http://blog.radvision.com/voipsurvivor/.]