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Cellular Integration Is Unified Communication’s Final Frontier


Image: Artem -
First, let me say that reconvening for the first in-person Enterprise Connect show in Orlando in three years was positively energizing. Getting together with longtime friends and colleagues, each of whom is a recognized thought leader in their particular area(s) of expertise, was gratifying on a personal level. But the chance to sit down face-to-face (and drink in hand) reestablished my faith in what we can contribute to helping businesses operate more effectively.
When it came to mobility, the two main topics were the prospects for private 5G networks in the enterprise and the emergence of a new front on the unified communications/team collaboration (UC/TC) front competition, which I am calling cellular integration. A show of hands poll in my "Mobility Update: Sizing Up 5G (and Alternatives) in the Real World" session found limited interest in private 5G, so I’ll save that analysis for another piece. However, cellular integration or the idea of better integrating cellular services into our unified communications (UC) and team collaboration (TC) solutions has taken on a new life.
UC vendors have been talking about fixed-mobile convergence (FMC) since UC first appeared in the early aughts. The UC vendors initially tried to bridge the gap by developing over-the-top (OTT) mobile UC apps. But they quickly found that constraints from the device manufacturers (Apple in particular) severely limited the functionality and ease of use they could deliver, so business users mostly ignored them.
Apple has relented somewhat with capabilities like CallKit, which provided developers limited access to the native dialer to accommodate a more integrated calling process over UC, TC, and other VoIP applications. However, integrating with other parts of the Apple ecosystem remains a challenge—simply put, if you want to do it, you do it on Apple’s terms.
The big change with this new wave of cellular integration solutions is the UC/TC vendors are attacking the problem from the other end, i.e., the carrier network. These vendors are describing a smarter connection to the cellular carrier’s network in conjunction with eSIM phones that can support both a personal and a business number on the same device. The key is that the ability to implement the service painlessly is a more intelligent interface between the carrier and the TC platform.
The near-term benefit will be a better UX for mobile users, but the longer-term capabilities could be enormous. The determining factor in what the UC/TC vendors will be able to deliver will be how far the cellular carriers are willing to go to meet them.
Meet The Impenetrable Blob
What most in our industry fail to recognize is the fundamental difference between our familiar wired networks and the cellular world. In the wired network, we have subscriber lines for individual users (e.g., telephones) and shared, consolidated connections or trunks for connecting big users (e.g., PRIs or SIP trunks). The cellular network only has subscriber lines; there are no special accommodations for enterprise-scale connections.
Further, the signaling information (i.e., commands to establish connections and activate features) we can exchange with the cellular network is limited to phone numbers, ringing signals, and SEND/END commands. The capabilities become even more limited when it comes to SMS.
You can send it a call, it can send you a call, but that’s about it. Oh, and their wideband audio doesn’t work with yours, so don’t count on good sound quality. So, for all intents and purposes, the cellular network, the largest public switched telephone network on earth, is an impenetrable blob as far our sophisticated communications and team collaboration platforms are concerned.
Despite the challenges this integration will involve (and they are not insubstantial), the basic truth is that you can only get so far in improving within your own platform. The next big innovations will have to come from connecting the big pieces together, and the cellular network is the biggest piece out there.
Twilio and the rest of the CPaaS industry have done about as good a job as they can in developing workarounds for the impenetrable blob. However, working with the cellular industry to develop these sorts of capabilities while meeting the carriers’ requirements for security and reliability should be a major goal for our industry going forward.
Let’s Try This Again, Only Better-Cellular Integration
As the fixed-mobile convergence (FMC) has come to represent a sad collection of losers, I now propose the term cellular integration to describe the new wave of mobile offerings coming from the UC/TC vendors. “Cellular” is the keyword here because “mobility” is already integrated with Wi-Fi the same way it’s integrated with ethernet. Cellular, on the other hand, is a wholly separate network infrastructure that exists on its own and, up until now, has been beyond our sphere of control. That’s why we need to integrate.
The first two entrants in this category on display at Enterprise Connect were Cisco's Webex Go and Microsoft’s Operator Connect Mobile. (RingCentral touted “Radical Mobility” in its keynote, but it appeared to be the same CallKit-enabled dialer function it’s had for some years.)
What sets Cisco’s and Microsoft’s offerings apart from what went before is that the UC/TC vendors are talking about securing the cellular operators’ cooperation in delivering more functional integration. Having watched dozens of vendors try and fail at getting the cellular networks to incorporate any foreign technology (i.e., anything not from the 3GPP or their cohorts at Ericsson, Nokia, and Qualcomm), I can attest to the obstacles they face.
At this stage, Cisco’s Webex Go seems to have the clear lead. Webex Go takes advantage of the eSIM that allows you to have two numbers on the phone, business and personal. This technology is available in most smartphones, today including all Apple models since the iPhone XS.
The secret sauce here is an arrangement Cisco has made with an unnamed partner that provides cellular integration. From the Cisco side, Webex Go also allows calls, even cellular calls, to be moved easily from the mobile to the desktop device and back.
Cisco also has a neat setup process for the cellular interface that involves sending an email to the user with a QR code they can scan from their phone to activate the business line on the mobile. Probably the biggest advantage here is Cisco can work with any mobile operator. Most enterprises use a mix of cellular carriers, and nobody wants to deal with the hassle of switching carriers.
Microsoft’s Operator Connect Mobile looks more like the first shot at cellular integration. While Cisco’s plan would integrate with any mobile operator, Microsoft has introduced its offering exclusively with Verizon; also, it does not yet support dual numbers. That means for now, the offer is geared toward organizations that provide employees with phones for work, or what we used to call COPE (i.e., corporate-owned, personal enabled). By contrast, Webex Go could support COPE or the bring your own device (BYOD) use case.
Providing an intelligent interface between the cellular network and the enterprise communications complex would open a world of service possibilities that will make our current crop of CPaaS capabilities look like child’s play. If Cisco and Microsoft have cracked that barrier, then we really are talking about something big.
Where Does Cellular Integration Go From Here
While I am most encouraged to see the UC/TC vendors taking these initiatives, I hope they are prepared for the challenges they face. They do appear to be stocking up on people with cell carrier backgrounds, which will be a help.
I also understand the carriers’ reluctance. Carriers are first and foremost utilities, companies that must provide a technically challenging service at an enormous scale. We’re talking about tens of millions of subscribers and hundreds of thousands of base stations.
The organized, procedure-driven utility management philosophy that makes the carriers successful at what they do is diametrically opposed to the more free-wheeling “Let’s see if this will work” attitude we find in the tech fields. I’m a Bell System veteran, and I still remember the instructor in one of my orientation classes saying flat out, “Remember, this is the network people use to call the cops and the fire department.” That feeling of responsibility sticks with me to this day.
That responsibility has now been assumed by the cellular carriers, and thank goodness they take it seriously—otherwise, people will die unnecessarily. The best way we have come up with to deliver on that is, as Theodore Vail, the legendary chairman of AT&T, put it, “One policy, one system, universal service.”
The carriers are justifiably reluctant to expose too much of their network internals. They need to protect the security of the networks themselves. But also the security of the real-time information it holds about its subscribers. The cellular network knows where you are; who else should we be sharing that information with?
I wouldn’t be so sanguine about our prospects for having the carriers embrace these initiatives except for two factors that have entered the equation. First, the carriers have already begun to move more of their virtualized systems into the cloud, so they are growing more comfortable with the concept and the security.
The other is that any integration capability that increases the commands we can exchange with the network will require an impenetrable firewall between the servers running the carrier network and those interfacing with APIs from TC/UC platforms and whatever other systems that could make use of this integration capability. Microsoft and Cisco are among the most preeminent names in computer security, so if they can’t handle it, who can?
I’m glad that Cisco and Microsoft are pushing this initiative both for TC/UC and for the industry as a whole and I will be eagerly watching how all of this develops.