Convergence has been a big story for some time, and it's easy to see why. Whether it's the coming together of communications and IT or of voice and data, the result is a raft of opportunities for organizations to reduce costs, improve efficiency and offer better service to their customers.
Now, however, the story has begun a new chapter. Major players such as Cisco, Motorola, Microsoft, BT and Nokia are planning to unite mobile telephony and the Internet. The result will allow organizations to do something they have wanted to do for some time – cut the cost of providing their employees with mobile phones.
Increasingly, however, employees are using their mobile phones as their principal means of making and receiving calls, whether or not they are in an office where a lower cost alternative is available. They value the convenience of knowing that calls will reach them wherever they are, and of being able to make calls easily to people whose numbers are stored in their directory. Unfortunately, it's a convenience that comes at a cost. Over half the organizations contacted in a recent survey expected the cost of mobile phone calls to rise between 2004 and 2007, some by as much as 25 percent .
Then there's the added cost of managing a 'fleet' of mobile phones. While desk-based phone services are typically managed centrally, mobile phone services are often bought locally -- either by the individuals who need them or on a country-by-country basis. This dilutes the organization's ability to use its purchasing power to get the best deal and can result in the cost of supporting a mobile user being up to three times that of a fixed-line user .
When it comes to providing phone services within an organization's premises, the situation is very different. Once the preserve of the cost-conscious consumers and technology enthusiasts, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) has developed to the point where it is a real alternative for organizations wanting to provide phone services to employees' desks.
A significant benefit of IP telephony, as VoIP-based phone systems are increasingly called, is that the costs of an organization's internal networks can be greatly reduced. Only one set of cables is required, making it cheaper to equip new or refurbished premises, and maintenance costs are also reduced. The need to have two support teams with different skills is eliminated, for example. And while each separate office might have required a separate PBX, the same IP telephony system can serve desks at any location that has access to the organization's intranet.
Other benefits flow from the fact that, while the number of a traditional phone is defined by the connection back to the exchange, the number of an IP phone is programmable.
Users need no longer be away from their phone when they are away from their desk, and desk sharing becomes much easier. Users simply log in to the phone that's on the desk they want to use and it becomes their phone, with their number and customized with their short cuts and preferences.
Work itself can also be made more flexible. With conventional call center technology, for example, advisers need to be based in a contact center, but with IP telephony they can just as easily work from home or in one of the company's retail outlets – anywhere that a secure connection to the company intranet is available.
The resulting improvements to productivity and flexibility add further to the case for moving corporate phone systems to IP telephony – a case that becomes even more convincing once a wireless dimension is added and options to offer service beyond the corporate firewall are considered.
Cutting the cord
Wireless LANs and cordless IP phones make it possible to deliver services to people who frequently work away from a desk or in locations that are not easily served by fixed cabling.
Wireless networks tend to suffer more from jitter than wired networks, however. Transmission delays can be longer and less bandwidth is available. Together, these technical characteristics can negatively impact call quality and increase the chance that calls will drop out mid- sentence. Solutions to these problems are being worked on but are not yet widely available.
Opportunities also exist for mobile workers to connect to the company's phone system through public wireless hotspots in locations like coffee shops, airports and stations. Provided they have the right technology to hand and can establish a secure connection into the corporate network, they can make the hotspot their office for as long as is required.
Indeed, given the density of wireless hotspots in some locations, one can imagine a future in which users could walk down the street and stay connected. As yet, WiFi connections cannot be passed seamlessly from one hotspot to another, so this isn't possible. Initiatives are underway to agree standards to address these problems, however. The IEEE, for example, is working on two enhancements to its 802.11 standards – 802.11e for QoS and 802.11r for access point handover – which will deliver the required functionality.
The ability to roam between WiFi hotspots can, however, only ever be a partial solution for mobile workers. Such hotspots will inevitably remain concentrated in urban areas, so an alternative is needed elsewhere.
This is where the concept of fixed/mobile convergence comes in. Operators and manufacturers are working towards a future in which people can roam freely across different networks, using whichever is best for price and performance at each location.
At the start of the day, they could connect over their home network to synchronize their calendar or check for messages. Driving to the station, they could make voice calls over a 3G network, switching to the cheaper public WiFi connection available at the station. Later, they could keep in touch using 3G or WiMAX connections, answering e-mail and accessing files to prepare for meetings.
This is all technically feasible today but people have to use a range of devices and have to reconnect every time they switch between networks. If the vision of converged networks is to become a reality, devices and applications must be easy to use and the complexity of the operation has to be hidden from those using the service.
This is where the Fixed-Mobile Convergence Alliance -- established by Swisscom, NTT, Korea Telecom, Rogers Wireless, Brasil Telecom and BT – aims to make an impact. It is defining technical standards that will allow phones to switch between alternative wireless networks. An early example of what will be possible is BT Fusion, the world's first combined fixed and mobile phone service, which works like a mobile when out and about but connects via Bluetooth technology and the customer's broadband line when within reach of a wireless home network.
Voice over wireless LAN (VoWLAN) services will take off, though, when they integrate fully with cellular networks and calls can be handed seamlessly from the wireless LAN and a cellular network, and vice versa.
NEC has launched a phone to roam from WiFi to NTT DoCoMo's FOMA 3G service, while Motorola has announced the CN620 VoWLAN compatible phone for countries with GSM mobile networks. It is also developing an innovative approach with Cisco to deliver a complete solution using wireless LANs within business premises.
Where to invest
All these developments are in the future, however, so the question is: What -– if anything -– should organizations be doing now?
The time is approaching fast for early adopters to start to experiment with the new technology and explore its potential. Many, though, will prefer to wait a little longer until the technology has matured and a range of suppliers is offering well-designed, robust products and services.
Let's be clear, though. With the recent announcements from major players, the convergence of voice and data, fixed and wireless, is no longer a question of if, but when. The technology has reached a key tipping point, so the time to get ready to exploit it has arrived.
The best option, then, is for organizations to begin the migration of their existing phone systems to IP telephony and to design IP telephony into new premises. The case for investments in IP telephony is clear and, while it could still be some time before wireless VoIP and converged fixed/mobile phone services become the norm, investments in fixed IP telephony systems made now will deliver good returns in the interim as well as paving the way for the future.
John Blake is head of hosted IP telephony at BT Global Services, BT's services and solutions division. John is responsible for the strategy and development of BT Global Services' Voice over IP (VoIP) portfolio in both the UK and across Europe. John has worked for BT for over 30 years and has been responsible for the successful launches of Surftalk, BT Netchat and BT Global Services hosted IP telephony services, Multimedia VoIP and VoIP Port. Prior to joining BT Global Services in April 2001, John spent six years in Product Development/Management where he developed from concept, BT's Core platform Centrex and VPN products, FeatureLine and FeatureNet Embark.