The promise of unified communications technology is a single, homogenous platform for all digital communications. But while technologies that bridge the divide between IP-based and mobile networks are widely (if not cheaply) available for most organisations, there is a glaring disunity at the heart of their communications infrastructure.
That is beginning to change, thanks in part to the wider adoption of mobile Internet devices and services. And as mobile and IP-based communications technologies have converged, so too have the industries that supply them.
That explains the increasing interest among mobile service providers in the corporate unified communications (UC) market, as exemplified by Vodafone. In July 2009, the carrier launched in the UK a UC offering named Vodafone One, and in September unveiled a hosted UC service targeted at small and medium-sized businesses, Vodafone One Net. The UK launch follows early projects in Italy and the Czech republic that have so far attracted 4,000 customers.
The move into UC is a significant strategic development for the company, according to Peter Kelly, enterprise director of Vodafone UK. “We are absolutely moving our Vodafone enterprise business from being mobile only to being a unified communications business that embraces our heritage in mobile,” he says. “This is a corporate-wide, long-term commitment to become a full-blown UC provider, beginning with fixed and mobile and ultimately embracing the IT desktop environment with Microsoft’s OCS [Office Communication Server].”
Vodafone believes its hosted UC model in particular will make the concept more accessible by simplifying what has until recently been a highly complex and technical environment.
“We know people have a lot of complexity in their communications infrastructure – LAN equipment, fixed line access usage, PBXs,” says Kelly. “It’s complex for a lot of customers, and our insight from the past six to 12 months suggests they are looking for someone to lower the cost and take away the complexity.” The carrier expects its One Net offering to average a 20% cost reduction over existing fixed line costs.
Vodafone’s UC offerings, Kelly explains, provide fixed-mobile convergence by integrating the mobile network with an end-user organisation’s IP call server, thereby unifying an organisation’s communications infrastructure and allowing such UC features as single identities across multiple devices.
This is not new – traditional UC providers have been peddling similar offerings for years. However, the carrier’s mobile heritage lends it authority in an increasingly mobile-driven world, while the hosted nature of its One Net offering makes it an attractive entry into UC for companies who have been leery of the technology’s high capital barriers of entry.
This integration did not come easily, however. Kelly explains that Vodafone spent two years and “tens of millions of pounds” integrating its own communication platforms with Nortel and Avaya equipment, “and over the next couple of months will finish integration with Cisco call servers”.
That integration workload led Vodafone to acquire Central Telecom, a technology-agnostic services provider and systems integration firm, in January 2009. “They are multi-vendor and bring us the credibility to talk to anybody,” Kelly explains. “We’re not competing [with Cisco, Avaya, etc], we’re providing intelligence into the mobile world.”
That is not to say there isn’t plenty of competition for One and One Net. Indeed, as the launch of a new fixed line telephony service by O2 in September 2009 reveals, business communications is an increasingly important battlefront between the mobile carriers.
Kelly says he expects the carrier-led UC market to become “very competitive” in the future. The impending merger of Orange and T-Mobile UK will create the country’s largest mobile carrier, but Kelly is confident of Vodafone’s ability to hold its own against this giant.
“We have a lead position with more than 40% of the enterprise mobile market. We have great new capabilities in Vodafone One and One Net, and while industry consolidation will take place, in the enterprise space we have a lead and will continue to lead,” he says.