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Nov/Dec 2009 | Volume 1/Number 6
Converged Views

Making Networks Social

By Marc Leclerc

No one can dispute the massive uptake of social networking around the globe. The success of Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn, among other sites, is changing the way people communicate and even how we define the word communication.

Once relegated simply to written and spoken words, communication today is enriched with images, video and interactive elements on an unprecedented scale. Communication is now, in essence, complete experience sharing.

Considering the elements of this new experience sharing trend within the defined social contexts of family, friends and colleagues, basic communication turns into social networking. The trend is fueled by Internet-based applications such as Facebook, which enable easy tracking of relationships and allow activities to be organized around these social contexts.

However, purely digital experiences cannot compare to real life interactions.

Simply put, people are not satisfied using social networking tools when only sitting in front of a computer screen, but would rather use them to augment reality wherever they go to enhance in-person experiences. Our industry has the opportunity to make the necessary mobility possible for people to take the experience with them and engage in social networking whenever the mood strikes. With these facts in mind, one important question arises in terms of telecoms: what must we do to make our networks social?

Social networking applications are defined by several key elements. First, they make it possible for people to organize and keep current information about their contacts. Second, they use these contact lists as a starting point to engage in enriched communications such as interactive chat, messaging, picture and video sharing, and even application sharing. Third, external application gateways can further enhance enriched communications by supporting and integrating third-party devices and externally defined services such as YouTube. These add-on services extend what subscribers can do when using social networking applications, increasing their value and creating additional revenue opportunities for service operators.

In telecoms terms, the contact list function is represented by the subscriber's address book, now most often stored within a mobile phone. People take this electronic address book with them everywhere. As expanded upon in a previous column, mobile address books offer a vast opportunity to network operators. To ensure the central role of this information, carriers should consider solutions that keep the data up to date and secure, such as "active address books."

Carriers must also provide a mechanism to synchronize the address book with external contact lists through social networking sites, perhaps even supporting media sharing directly from a variety of devices including mobile terminals. These social media portals can support direct integration of Internet-based social networking functions with telecom network services including messaging, chat, file transfer, notifications and GPS location.

Combined with network enablers such as voicemail, media streaming, SMS and MMS, social networking applications make it possible to extend the user experience across device types and network boundaries. Many of these functions have already been integrated into a comprehensive globally-deployable and standards-based solution called rich communications services. With more than 80 members worldwide, the GSMA's RCS initiative is involved in assisting market trials starting in the fourth quarter of 2009. A carrier implementing this convergent social experience approach in its network also can use it as the foundation for a beneficial two-way business model. This model would generate revenues not only from subscriptions, but also from providing service providers access to their subscriber base for advertising, sponsored messaging, viral marketing and even retail sales. This way, operators can increase revenues from new applications while encouraging greater use of their existing infrastructure. By taking full advantage of the efficiencies and expanded capabilities of IMS network elements, costs can then be reduced by amortizing infrastructure across a wider revenue base.

Online social networks have become widely successful, with Facebook, for example, recently surpassing the 200 million subscriber mark. However, telecom networks offer access to a much larger and active subscriber base than even the Internet can provide, with Chinese operator China Mobile having just announced its 500 millionth subscriber.

By making networks social, carriers can place our industry at the heart of the consumer's social life. Offering consumers a rich and seamless social networking experience and service providers a more intimate and secure commercial channel, carriers with social networks can drive monetization of network resources and deliver winning user experiences, which ultimately keep customers coming back.

Marc Leclerc is manager of the Global IMS Expert Centre at Ericsson (www.ericsson.com).

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