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Cellular Carriers Join The Team Collaboration Revolution

Heading into Enterprise Connect 2023, we are anticipating an exciting new wave of mobility products that can deliver a much richer set of communications and collaboration services for mobile users outside the enterprise perimeter. The key enabler for this leap forward is the cellular carriers’ decision to allow more functional interconnections with cloud-based unified communications/team collaboration as a service (UC/TCaaS) platforms like Microsoft Teams, Cisco Webex, and Ring Central MVP.

For decades, the UC/TC community has been fumbling with the problem of extending their capabilities to mobile users. Those efforts have mostly been stymied by two entrenched obstacles: the device manufacturers (Apple in particular), and the cellular carriers, whose connectivity options to support sophisticated UC/TC platforms were limited to analog telephone calls and best-effort Internet services.

I began focusing on the mobility aspects of UC (and subsequently TC) in the early 2000s when I joined BCStrategies (“UCStrategies” in those days), and watched how those obstacles stymied all attempts by the UC vendors at delivering functional mobile capabilities real people would actually use. The UC vendors endlessly flaunted their awkward mobility offerings in customer presentations and at events like Enterprise Connect while, in reality, they couldn’t get their own employees to use them.


Do Not Tarnish the Apple’s Shine

On the device side, Apple, always protective of its vaunted user experience, did not allow developers access to the iPhone’s native dialer. Android did allow access to the dialer, but the enterprise UC market was (and is) dominated by iPhone users. 

So, UC vendors had to develop a separate app to provide a way to place calls. The result was a mobile UC app that did the same thing the phone was already doing, only in a less convenient fashion with no apparent benefits; I refer to that as failing in the “functionality-aggravation metric.” That barrier was surmounted in 2016 when Apple introduced CallKit.  

CallKit spawned a new wave of mobile UC apps that replaced the idea of using cellular voice calls with UC/TC VoIP connections, essentially making all user traffic “IP data traffic.” However, as my fellow No Jitter contributor Dave Michels pointed out, while this configuration worked fine on wired Ethernet or enterprise-grade Wi-Fi networks, if that mobile UC/TC VoIP traffic wound up carried on a cellular carrier’s broadband data service, the call quality often failed to meet business standards. Welcome to the second roadblock.


Carrier Cooperation Was Lacking

Clearly, a real cellular voice connection could guarantee better voice quality, but truly integrating cellular voice service with the UC/TC platforms required full buy-in and cooperation from the cellular carriers. I have long lamented that while the cellular networks employ marvelous technologies internally, as far as enterprise requirements go the cellular networks were as functional as mid-last century wired telephone networks. 

The basic problem was that cellular voice service supports two types of subscriber connections: cell phones and analog telephone connections. The latter are delivered through connections to the wired public telephone network. In the end, the only cellular service available to connect to an intelligent, multi-function UC/TC platform was a “voice grade” telephone connection. 


Two Carriers Clear Their Own Roadblocks

The big news is that obstacle is now disappearing. AT&T and Verizon, two of the nationwide cellular operators, are supporting SIP-based UC/TCaaS trunking connections directly from their core IP Multimedia Subsystems (IMS) networks, which greatly expands the range of functionality supported. Cisco is pursuing a somewhat different but similarly capable configuration. The result is a major leap forward in functionality the first wave of which can be seen in offerings like AT&T’s Office@Hand, Cisco’s Webex Go, and Microsoft’s Teams Mobile Phone.  

This change of heart by the cellular carriers coincides with a wider move by the cellular industry to migrate more of their core network technology to the cloud. The result has been greater collaboration with the cloud providers yielding offerings like AWS For Telecom, Microsoft Azure for Operators, and Cisco’s Telco Cloud.


UC/TCaaS Solutions Beginning to Bloom

We saw these new mobile UC/TCaaS offerings announced last year at Enterprise Connect, but this year they are beginning to bloom. They will be on full display in my session titled Will Cellular Fixed-Mobile Convergence Finally Happen With UC/Collaboration? (Monday morning March 28 at 9:00 AM). The panel features executives from AT&T, Cisco, Microsoft and Ring Central with each discussing their new generation mobile UC/TC capabilities. 

Having been briefed on all of these offerings, and I can confirm that right out of the gate they are delivering significant benefits like UC presence integration and vastly improved mobile voice quality. Remember, this is only the first tranche of capabilities, and we expect to hear a lot more about the vendors’ future plans in our session. Most importantly, this new level of carrier integration allows a far more functional and less intrusive user experience. In other words, a major improvement in the functionality-aggravation metric.

We are only beginning to understand the full range of capabilities, limitations, and challenges these new carrier service connections bring. If you are involved with your organization’s mobility plans, this is a session you will want to attend.