One of the biggest questions surrounding mobile unified communications (UC) is the role mobile operators will play in the process. Will mobile operators ignore mobile unified communications (as they seem to be doing today) or embrace it and provide UC-capable connections to their network services? Or will Long Term Evolution (LTE) provide a UC-friendly mobile environment where mobile unified communications simply happens, independent of the influence of mobile operators? My bet is on LTE, but it will take some years for the process to unfold.
For the moment, three things differentiate mobile operators' offerings: handsets, coverage/capacity, and price. In the consumer market -- the only market that the operators seem remotely interested in -- handsets dominate.
This leaves the operators in a somewhat awkward position since they don't actually make the handsets. Thus, handsets -- the key element in the consumer's value assessment -- are outside the operator's direct control. For example, with the iPhone coup, AT&T proved that having an exclusive on the hottest handset can have a major impact on your business, while models that are available on multiple networks (e.g., BlackBerry and Android) are less of a factor.
Clearly, the handset (and the application ecosystem that supports it) drives the purchasing decision in the consumer space, but consumer-based apps like Urbanspoon are not going to carry much weight in the enterprise market. A consumer can survive exclusively on a mobile phone, whereas an enterprise mobile user needs the rich collaborative features of unified communications. Enterprise mobile device users must have secure, reliable access to the enterprise network via mobile devices.
My associate at UC Strategies, Blair Pleasant, wrote the Wikipedia definition of unified communications, which reads: "Unified communications (UC) is the integration of real-time communication services such as instant messaging, presence information, telephony (including IP telephony), video conferencing, call control and speech recognition with non real-time communication services such as unified messaging (integrated voicemail, email, SMS and fax). UC is not a single product, but a set of products that provides a consistent user interface and user experience across multiple devices and media types."
SIP workaround for mobile unified communications
One of the greatest challenges of mobile unified communications is extending the aforementioned range of UC capabilities to mobile users. This is particularly challenging because the mobile operators have been one step removed from the wire-line customer and have depended on the wired network to make the last leg of the connection. That may have been sufficient when all they had to deliver was a voice call with caller ID, but unified communications involves conveying presence status, calendar integration, multi-modal communications, collaboration, and other core features.
In the short run, enterprises can mobilize UC with a direct intelligent interface to the mobile operator. The obvious means to accomplish this is with SIP and SIMPLE (SIP with IM and Presence Leveraging Extensions): using SIP to make and receive calls, SIMPLE to support real-time presence (e.g., power on/off, in-use/idle, and potentially battery status) and location-based services based on either GPS or basic cell tower location.
The SIP-based mobile network interface could also be enhanced to allow for secure Wi-Fi/cellular handoffs or the ability to conveniently move calls between a wired desk set and a mobile device. Some of these capabilities exist today, but they typically involve sophisticated workarounds or special clients on the handset -- all of which leave users unimpressed.
LTE and WiMAX make way for mobile unified communications
Given mobile operators' established pattern of ignoring the requirements of enterprise customers, I am not the least bit optimistic about mobile operators embracing SIP, SIMPLE and UC. However, their ongoing 4G plans may push support of mobile unified communications nonetheless. There are currently two primary standards for 4G -- LTE and WiMAX -- and they both incorporate two fundamental elements.
First, they both deliver multimegabit data rates to mobile users using technologies like OFDM and MIMO. In all mobile data services, the effective bit rate will depend on channel bandwidth, distance from the base station (i.e., signal-to-noise ratio), and the number of concurrent users in that cell or sector. WiMAX is currently delivering downstream rates in the 3 MB to 5 MB range. The other and more important element in 4G is that it assumes an all-IP core network.
Initially, both WiMAX and LTE service will be used exclusively for data services; voice traffic will still be carried on the operators' circuit-based 2G networks. Once a high-capacity, low-latency, all-packet network is available, there will be virtually no way for the operators to keep voice traffic off it.
For example, I could order an LTE data plan for my laptop, substitute a VoIP-over-LTE-capable smartphone, and it's "game over." Mobile operators may try a "Comcast strategy," where they slow down the voice packets, but the net neutrality supporters will have them drawn and quartered.
In effect, what we are talking about is the Internetization of the cellular business. I thought I had made up the word "Internetization," but Google uses the term in a variety of contexts. If we have to depend on the mobile operators to provide enterprise mobile unified communications, we will be waiting a long time. LTE, however, will effectively allow enterprises to support mobile UC clients the same way they currently support remote UC laptops over Internet connections.
About the author:
Michael Finneran is an independent consultant and industry analyst who specializes in wireless technologies, mobile unified communications and fixed-mobile convergence. With more than 30 years in the networking field and a broad range of experience, Finneran is a widely recognized expert in the field. He has recently published his first book, entitled Voice Over Wireless LANs -- The Complete Guide (Elsevier, 2008). His expertise spans the full range of wireless technologies, including Wi-Fi, 3G/4G Cellular, WiMAX and RFID.