Dual-mode phones with both Wi-Fi and cellular coverage will help enterprises realize the mobility benefits that unified communications promises, while possibly cutting some costs.
The technology allows an enterprise to route calls through the IP PBX when compatible phones are within range for a Wi-Fi signal and to switch on the fly to a cellular connection when the wireless network is not present.
It achieves this on-the-fly connection by having an appliance -- sold by NEC, Siemens, Agito and other vendors -- sit on the local network and monitor connections. When the proper criteria (often signal strength or location) are met and credentials are provided, the appliance signals to the phone to automatically flip over to the strongest network.
Craig Mathias, principal analyst at Farpoint Group, said these implementations could solve a variety of business problems, but the primary value for most enterprises might be in improving productivity.
"The more time people spend waiting, the less productive they are," Mathias said. By having their cell phone be their office phone, users could quit playing phone tag and could make calls where convenient, not where the reception is available.
He said the technology, currently with only small market adoption, would benefit greatly as enterprises upgraded their networks over the next few years to the 802.11n standard, which provides more complete, seamless coverage.
WestEd, a national education-research and public-policy agency based in San Francisco, has been trialing Agito's RoamAnywhere platform for a few weeks now and has mostly found success.
"The thing that was most important was managing a mobile staff dealing with multiple telephone numbers," said Richard Wenn, information services director for WestEd. He said he had looked at several available "one number" services, which forward calls to both a cell phone and a landline, and found them lacking -- they tacked on extra work for the end user, or simply complicated things too much from a management side.
Agito's solution, by contrast, allows users to keep using their cell phone normally without having to type in codes or perform any manual tasks as they move from cellular to Wi-Fi coverage: The system automatically re-routes calls on the fly and even helps create a seamless access-point to access-point transition by using software to account for audio gaps.
Wenn said his only real concern so far was the question of which platforms the service was available on. Currently, Agito supports the Nokia Symbian operating system, but the company said it plans to offer support for Windows Mobile and BlackBerry phones in the near future.
Ditching the landline is not for everyone, though, Mathias warned. Jobs where the worker is tied to a location, such as a call center or help desk, would probably do better to keep the solid reliability of landlines as they would gain little from being able to take their phone anywhere.
Adopting wireless calling might also require a boost in Wi-Fi infrastructure. Pejman Roshan, Agito's vice president of marketing, said typical customers had to boost their number of access points by about 10%.
There remains a wide subset of problems that these convergence solutions can help solve. Many buildings have poor cell phone reception, for example, a problem potentially mitigated through a properly deployed wireless network. Other enterprises might be trying to cut prohibitive cell phone bills or help manage a field solution for mobile professionals. Ultimately, the cost-benefit equation comes down to one factor.
"You might spend [more], you might spend less. It's a difficult analysis," Mathias said. "The ultimate determinant [of] value is productivity."
Dual-mode Wi-Fi/cellular phones will become more popular, he said, particularly among the smartphone class of devices, giving deployments more flexibility in choosing the phones, and service providers, that work best for them.
"Wi-Fi is going to become ubiquitous over time … and it's the closest thing we have to a global wireless standard," Mathias said. He added that companies with international offices could really see a boon if traveling executives can still use their phones in the offices in France, the United States and any other location with an open Wi-Fi connection.
For WestEd, deciding to experiment with merging landlines and cell phones was largely a strategic move.
"It's part of a larger unified messaging solution," Wenn said. He hopes that WestEd's developing strategy will make life more convenient for its employees while helping them connect more quickly – and productively.