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The "Skype effect" -- using a laptop as cell phone

As the use of Skype, IM and VoIP skyrockets in the enterprise, it's important to understand and balance the challenges these technologies have for the mobile enterprise. This column offers suggestions about how to address the use of these technologies in your organization.

A growing number of business users have come to rely on instant messaging (IM), Skype and other forms of IP telephony (VoIP). These technologies present numerous challenges for the enterprise, and understanding what to do about them is best addressed by retracing the path we've taken to get to where we are now. As we follow the breadcrumbs, we'll identify some of the alternate routes we can take today.

Your PBX vendor has been talking about supporting SIP-based softphones for years, but you've never seen fit to support a company-wide deployment. Sure, the call center has been using softphones, but there has been little effort to do anything for mobile users. The telecom department did a trial a few years back, but the return on investment (ROI) just wasn't there. There was the gateway hardware, softphone licenses, headsets, microphones and the connectivity requirement. Most laptops had Ethernet ports to access hotel broadband, but as Wi-Fi hot spots came online, it took 18 to 24 months to get 802.11 cards into laptops. And then there were the wide area issues. Three years ago, everyone was talking about 3G, but the best anyone could hope for was GPRS and 1xRTT, dribbles of bandwidth that failed to provide a level of performance comparable to the cell phone.

The conclusion at the time was that cellular was cost effective and that most traveling workers already had those devices. The cost of rolling out an IP telephony solution was far greater than the continued expense of cellular telephone services that the company already expects to rely upon for the foreseeable future.

Depending on cellular

In the early days, corporate cellular purchasing had few policies. Users would find a phone and a plan and simply expense the purchase and monthly charges. (For many companies and a great number of workers today, that policy hasn't changed much.) Meanwhile, some corporate telecom departments started auditing their cellular purchasing, tracking extreme usage and implementing the most basic of policies.

The rudimentary policies in place today for corporate cellular telephony can best be described as "use as much as you need for your business purpose," which means that 3,500 minutes of usage per month is probably too much but that it is perfectly acceptable to use a mobile telephone as a primary phone.

The usage patterns for corporate cellular now reflect this implicit policy. In 2005, research firm Strategy Analytics issued the results of a study of corporate cellular usage that pinpointed the two primary places where workers use their cell phones: Home and office usage account for roughly 80% of business cellular minutes.

The blurring of work and home life has been acceptable to many corporate HR and IT departments, and mobile telephony has led the way for laptop computers, remote access networking, and other tele-work technologies. Today, many companies allow and even encourage work-at-home policies.

International roaming

The low cost of mobile telephony, flat rate plans, on-network calling, and other features have further reinforced the idea of the cellular telephone as the only telephone for business purposes. Correspondingly, corporate use of calling cards has fallen dramatically in the past five years, and pay telephones in public places have become increasingly difficult to find.

The policies fall apart when users roam across national boundaries. The high cost per minute puts pressure on a model driven by price. In domestic environments, corporate management has been willing to accept the blurring of work and personal life, especially on mobile devices. But the policy for personal use of a mobile telephone in an international environment drives users back to corporate calling cards and other "inconvenient" solutions.

Enter Skype

Faced with the high cost of international mobile roaming, many users have begun to use services such as Skype, which offer low- or no-cost telephony regardless of international boundaries. A traveling worker is now likely to use his mobile telephone for some work situations and Skype for both work and personal reasons.

IT departments are – and should be – extremely wary of a peer-to-peer telephony application such as Skype. The help desk and support issues of a constantly changing piece of software are numerous. Similarly, the security risks of Skype are another strong argument against enterprise deployments. With Skype clients available for mobile and handheld devices, users have begun to drive VoIP traffic onto Wi-Fi hot spots and 3G carrier networks.

What to do?

Market conditions have changed drastically since the last corporate evaluation of the SIP-based softphone. There are many more device choices, often for handhelds with both local- and wide-area radios supporting 3G and Wi-Fi. The network services are more numerous, cost effective and available.

Here are four recommendations about how to address the use of Skype in your organization:

  1. Find the Skype users. By identifying these users within your company, you have an opportunity to find out why they are using Skype on corporate assets. Is there a common activity profile or other corporate demographic that helps to describe these workers? Is there a common reason why these individuals are using Skype? Write a list of these factors.


  2. Investigate the policy. Does your company have an established and articulated policy about cellular usage? Are there prohibitions on personal uses? Is there a gap in the policy that is encouraging the adoption of Skype? Something to think about is whether it makes sense to drive these users – at a higher individual cost covered by the company – back to their mobile telephones.


  3. Evaluate Skype and SIP-based solutions. It's probably time to re-evaluate softphones and Skype. The increased value of PBX integration, access to corporate voicemail and other features may push the softphone over the barriers that prevented adoption the last time around. It's also important to factor in security issues, support and associated costs.


  4. Consider mobile devices other than laptops. Symbian, Windows Mobile and Palm devices are numerous. Many are now available with built-in Wi-Fi radios that complement the 3G networking capabilities. Some users may be inclined to use these new devices instead of a laptop, and that may change the way the user interacts with a softphone or other telephony application.

When presented with burgeoning Skype usage, many IT managers are inclined to do everything they can to block usage and traffic. Skype is symptomatic of another set of issues, and IT departments would do well to investigate the policies and processes that are driving user adoption. Once the business cases for SIP-based softphones and Skype support have been built, there may be a strong argument for simply paying the cost of international roaming. As we know in IT and telecom departments, there are no free lunches, and the cost that the user sees is only a small component of the total cost of providing services.


Daniel Taylor

Daniel Taylor is managing director for the Mobile Enterprise Alliance, Inc. (MEA), and he is responsible for global alliance development, programs, marketing and member relations. He brings over fourteen years of high technology experience and is well known as a subject matter expert on many of the aspects of mobility, including wireless data networking, security, enterprise applications and communications services. Prior to the MEA, Dan held a number of product marketing and development positions in the communications industry.


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