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Creating the Market for Next-Gen Cellular Fixed-Mobile Convergence

Talk of the boundless potential of generative AI dominated discussions at this year's Enterprise Connect conference in Orlando. My focus at the show was on the practical issue of delivering better and more functional mobile services to enterprise unified communications/team collaboration as a service (UC/TCaaS) users. The session I moderated, Will Cellular Fixed-Mobile Convergence Finally Happen With UC/Collaboration?, featured three of those new services: AT&T’s Office@Hand, Cisco’s Webex Go, and Microsoft’s Teams Mobile Phone.


Next-gen FMC Solutions Based on SIP

This new generation of mobile solutions has come about through a subtle but fundamentally enabling change in how cloud-based enterprise UC/TC platforms connect to the cellular networks. This new SIP-based connection (that doesn’t yet have a formal name) runs from a gateway on the cellular carriers’ core IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) network to the UC/TC platform allowing them to share control of cellular calls.

Prior to this, the only connection from the enterprise UC/TC platforms to the cellular networks was through the wired public switched telephone network (PSTN). That meant the only UC/TC service the cellular network could deliver was a basic 3 kilohertz (KHz) telephone connection. These new SIP-based connections open a rich new set of service possibilities, not the least of which is the ability to have wideband voice connections for dial-in conference participants – won’t that be a blessing.

From the user’s perspective, since these new services are being created in conjunction with the cellular carriers, they utilize the native interface on the mobile device, and so they are essentially transparent. Because these services integrate seamlessly, they provide calling capabilities identical to those used for personal calls.

For the few of us who focus on the mobile elements of UC/TC, SIP-based trunk connections to the cellular networks address a development roadblock we identified years ago. However, as I talked up these capabilities around the show floor, I quickly got the impression I was the only one who was excited about this. It seems that after 20-plus years of “lead balloon” ideas for adding mobility to UC/TC, the vendors might be facing an uphill battle in even getting customers to listen to a mobility pitch anymore.


New Capabilities Already Adding Value

Make no mistake about it, these services are still in their infancy and the providers are just coming to grips with what new functions they should introduce or how these new capabilities will impact enterprises’ existing mobility policies. These next-gen mobility services introduce new options for how company-provided (CRU) or user-owned (BYOD) originated calls appear to contacts, and expose the trade-offs involved in how business and personal use combine on dual use devices. However, before policy revisions even become an issue, the vendors will first have to generate interest and demand among users. Fortunately, even at this early stage there are capabilities here that users will value.

I fully expect these services to improve over time, and the current functional differences will normalize. In the interim, each of these solutions will be acceptable only to a specific subset of the mobile business population. Going forward, the key will be recognizing which features have the greatest appeal and then marketing them effectively, which means highlighting benefits – i.e., how these solutions will make your life better. The beauty of these new mobile products is that the benefit is not some hazy futuristic concept, but real practical stuff that can make your life better right now.

For now, we are seeing a core set of next-gen FMC capabilities emerge:

• User Benefits: A cellular end device on the UC/Team Collaboration platform

  • Presence Integration: UC/TC status “Busy” if mobile in use.
  • Calls dialed through the mobile device’s native dialer on iOS and Android which means “no app required.”
  • True cellular voice connections (with network QoS): Eliminates unreliable over- the-top (OTT) Voice/Video over IP connections using a best effort cellular data network.
  • Non-intrusive ability to upgrade from a cellular call to the full UC/TC experience.
  • Call recording for regulatory compliance (if required).

• Business Benefits: Professional Appearance (assumes company-paid or “CRU” devices)

  • Business can take control of how business calls appear to contacts.
  • Inbound Calls: No calls to personal mobile numbers.
  • Outbound Calls: Business name on Calling Line/Name ID displayed.

• Integrated Management

  • Once the mobile numbers are assigned to the UC/TC platform, the network administrators can assign and option them for users through the platform’s management portal.


The Killer Features: Dual Numbers and Better Voice Quality

Two other important capabilities have appeared on one or more offerings:

  • Dual Number/Dual SIM-eSIM Support: Only Cisco offers this in Webex Go today, however, most of the others claim that it is imminent. This feature will allow the user to have two numbers, one business and one personal, on the same phone. The business number can be a UC/TC station (Webex in Cisco’s case) with the features listed above, and the other number is the user’s; the two numbers can be on the same or different cellular networks. The key trade-off is that only one number can be active on a call at a time. That could be an issue for some businesses if calls to a company-provided phone are going to voicemail because the user is on a personal call. That’s where those “policy issues” emerge. Everyone I talked to about this challenge, energetically offered their opinion on how they thought this should be handled. I politely pointed out to them that their opinion didn’t count for beans. I have worked with numerous companies in developing their current mobility policies, and it is a joint effort involving IT, security, human resources, maybe legal and labor relations. It takes time to come up with a set of rules acceptable to all constituencies. The important thing to recognize is that the rules have to be in place before the service gets purchased.
  • Dial-in Wideband Support: Only Microsoft has this today with its partner Verizon, and, for now, it is the one feature I’ve seen that could actually spur a user to switch carriers. This addresses the widely recognized problem of that one annoying dial-in user (the one who doesn’t know how to mute their mic), who can turn what is already an annoying conference call into a true test of human endurance. This is an experience that virtually every businessperson can relate to, but dial-in wideband will fix the poor sound quality associated with those dial-in connections. The reason only Microsoft can deliver this solution today, is because they have developed the technology to transcode the 3GPP-defined Adaptive Multi-Rate Wideband (AMR-WB) code used by the cellular carriers into the SILK/SATIN-coding Microsoft uses internally. Developing AMR-WB transcoders for G.722 or other wideband coding formats could delay other entries for some time.

While the next-gen mobile solutions are delivering value out of the gate, the real promise lies in what additional capabilities the UC/TC vendors and their carrier partners will be able to gin up going forward.


A New Front Has Opened in the UC/TC Platform Battle

I really cannot see a future in which the entire decision about which TC platform to use will rest solely to the mobility features. How much of a deciding factor those features do become may well come down to how much marketing emphasis the vendors place on them. Very few enterprise products are so compelling that users literally beg for them, so it will be up to the vendors to “create the buzz.”

As I noted above, the only capability I have seen thus far that might create a groundswell from the user population is dial-in wideband, particularly for those who are most regularly victimized by auditorily painful conference calls.

For now, these are still early-stage offerings that involve a lot of technology that buyers haven’t seen before. Add to that the fact that the cellular carriers have kept their internal operations opaque for security reasons, meaning that most buyers don’t really understand how the cellular cloud works. As a result, the cellular carriers are not held in the highest regard by most enterprise buyers.

The initial beneficiaries of this development will be the UC/TC platform vendors who now have a valuable product addition that they can use to differentiate their offerings from those who haven’t yet gotten on the next-gen FMC bandwagon. Mobile operators are clearly looking to sell additional corporate responsibility user (CRU) lines, and possibly personal lines if users decide they no longer want to use their “business line” for personal calls. As both AT&T and Verizon have their SIP-based trunking capabilities in the market, the biggest potential loser will be T-Mobile, which doesn’t seem to have recognized the opportunity.

The great thing is that FMC is now a functional, non-intrusive feature addition to the UC/TC offering, and these vendors know how to sell features. That will involve “painting a picture” of what business life will look like when we can truly integrate cellular services, and what the policies should look like to manage this new environment.