The growth of mobile phone usage and the availability of desktop unified communication (UC) solutions have created an opportunity for vendors and service providers to introduce products that enable mobile users to access many of the features that previously could be accessed only through a PC or fully featured desktop IP telephone. These unified communications services and products enable enterprises to extend telephony features to their mobile users while making them more productive regardless of location.
Hosted unified communications services
Network operators have begun to offer a limited set of hosted mobile unified communications services. Verizon's Managed Unified Communication and Collaboration service is based on Cisco's Unified Communications System. British Telecom has partnered with Cisco, Avaya and ONRelay to offer several unified communications services. Orange's Business Together service provides a hosted Microsoft Office Communications Server plan.
Some operators also provide special rate plans and call routing for mobile phones. AT&T's OfficeReach solution can extend an enterprise dialing plan to mobile phones (e.g., 4-digit dialing) and can also designate a geographical region (e.g., the U.S.) as a single calling zone. Sprint's Wireless Integration Service provides unlimited enterprise calling for mobile phones and can route international mobile calls through trunks off the premises-based PBX, saving per-minute international roaming costs.
Hosted PBX services
Hosted PBX services provide features similar to mobile extension products, but they are offered as hosted services that enable incoming call routing based on predefined rules. (Mobile extension products treat the mobile phone as if it were an enterprise phone extension and simply route calls to the mobile device.) Users sign up for the service, obtain telephone numbers that become their personal phone numbers, and then use Web portals to manage how calls are routed.
Hosted PBX solutions are telephony-system and phone independent, meaning that they can function in an enterprise environment regardless of the type of telephony system or the type of mobile phone. The value of this approach is that a customer can use a single number for all inbound calls, and the hosted PBX service then gives incoming callers instructions to ensure that calls are routed properly to the mobile or desktop phone.
Hosted PBX solutions such as Grasshopper, RingCentral, VirtualPBX and Onebox are targeted at small and medium-sized businesses. They provide enterprise telephony features without the need to buy and maintain equipment and hire IT staff. Calls that use the hosted PBX service consume monthly minutes of use, similar to a mobile cellular plan. The enterprise pays a fixed service fee and a varying usage fee. For example, GotVMail's high-end "Max" plan provides three toll-free numbers, two local numbers and 10,000 minutes of use. This plan would enable 50 employees to consume 200 minutes of use every month.
Many of the network operators offer a mobile extension service (e.g., Verizon PBX mobile extension and AT&T mobile extension services). These services extend the operator's hosted PBX capabilities in much the same way that PBX vendors extend their premises systems. The service is a natural extension for enterprises that already use the operator's hosted PBX service.
Hosted service issues
The challenge with mobile operator services is threefold. Firstly, the service is under the control of the network operator, and many large enterprises will want to fully control a technology as critical as mobile UC. Secondly, recent Burton Group research found that many enterprises view network operators as unresponsive and inflexible. Lastly, many enterprises can save money by operating their own equipment because large enterprises often have the same economies of scale as network operators.
Mobile unified communications services and products enable enterprises to extend the benefits of UC to mobile users. Mobile UC capabilities vary widely and are highly dependent on which product, service, and mobile phone the enterprise selects. Enterprises should carefully evaluate mobile UC products and services in order to make informed decisions about the most appropriate solutions.
About the author: Paul DeBeasi is a senior analyst at the Burton Group and has more than 25 years of experience in the networking industry. Before joining the Burton Group, Paul founded ClearChoice Advisors, a wireless consulting firm, and was the VP of product marketing at Legra Systems, a wireless-switch innovator. Prior to Legra, he was the VP of product marketing at startups IPHighway and ONEX Communications and was also the frame relay product line manager for Cascade Communications. Paul began his career developing networking systems as a senior engineer at Bell Laboratories, Prime Computer and Chipcom Corp. He holds a BS in systems engineering from Boston University and a master of engineering degree in electrical engineering from Cornell University. Paul is a well-known conference speaker and has spoken at many events, among them Interop, Next Generation Networks, Wi-Fi Planet and Internet Telephony.