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What Will 5G Mean to UC and Team Collaboration?

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Business 5G
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Back in April I wrote a piece lamenting the ruckus that ensues any time the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) deigns to add another “G” to the myriad of confusion surrounding cellular standards. Well, the silliness continues, and now someone (likely someone who isn’t actually in this business) decided that 5G is a race, and a race the U.S. must win!
 
Those of us who have lived through a few of these generational changes have learned to take these flights of fancy — with their whirling visions of self-driving vehicles, augmented reality, Internet of Things (IoT) devices under every rock, and even doctors performing robotic surgery — in stride. Of course, we might wonder why a hospital with multiple fiber links and an extensive, highly reliable internal wired network would want to roll the dice and start doing operations over a radio system, but that’s advertising.
 
That said, 5G is a major upgrade on one of the two primary wireless infrastructure options on which enterprises depend, the other being Wi-Fi. And 5G promises new ultra-reliable, very-low-latency services for autonomous vehicles (not yet delivered), support for denser cellular IoT deployments for businesses (the faster-growing residential IoT segment depends almost universally on Wi-Fi connectivity), and a boost in data rates for traditional cellular data services (though over 75% of cellular data traffic is actually carried on Wi-Fi).
 
The Power of Infrastructure
While the industry seems to have been swept up in visions of a future 5G-driven world, it’s important to remember that with 5G (and Wi-Fi for that matter) we’re talking about infrastructure. With infrastructure, we make great things possible. Importantly, however, we don’t actually make anything “happen.” The happening part of this story comes from the marvelously creative folks who develop mobile capabilities and services that make use of this wonderful infrastructure we’ve put before them.
 
In no way do I look to demean the phenomenal creativity that has gone into 5G’s development. I am forever awed by the amazing technological leaps I have seen in wireless over the last 20 to 30 years. We’re now delivering 60 times the transmission capacity we did over 2G cellular networks using the same size radio channel. Along with that, we’ve seen ideas to incorporate a much wider range of frequency bands to increase network capacity and countless enhancements to reduce the cost and increase the reliability in operating cellular networks (though a lot more could be done on the latter front).
 
Big picture, however, the capabilities (i.e., “What can it do for me?) are what buyers are interested in.
 
UC and Team Collaboration in a 5G World
When looking at the origin of the big service ideas for enterprise IT, I consider three potential sources: from within (the cellular industry), from without (the UC/team collaboration industry), and beyond (the consumer market). Let’s size up the prospects for each of these.
 
From Within — the Cellular Industry: Dating back to the 1990s, I remember references to mobile Centrex. Since bastardized, the original idea was to provide business-type voice capabilities to mobile devices and seamlessly integrate between wired and wireless telephone services to deliver capabilities that made users more efficient and productive. While we have seen countless attempts at this goal, all have fallen miles short on the “seamless” part and have failed totally at providing capabilities users valued.
 
However, hope remains, and the cellular providers are in the best position to deliver on this. Over the last 15-plus years, I have reviewed countless half-baked ideas at “fixed-mobile convergence” (FMC), or whatever descriptive term was in use that week. Many of these ideas came from the UC (now team collaboration) suppliers like Cisco, Avaya, and Mitel and were subsequently copied by various UCaaS providers. But these solutions were terminally hamstrung by limitations in the device architecture (resulting in the “inconvenient phone call”) along with a cellular network that offered no network connection equivalent to a “trunk,” the bridge we would need for meaningful interconnection of the PBX and cellular environments.
 
The cellular networks remain as closed as a medieval fortress, but the carriers themselves hold the key. Verizon and AT&T have implemented Cisco/BroadSoft into their networks to expand the range of business services. Those same carriers (and others, including Sprint) also have taken to reselling Cisco HCS, Microsoft Teams, and Cisco/BroadSoft wired UCaaS solutions. Each of these offerings seems to operate in its own isolated silo, and none has managed to deliver enough user interest to move the mobile Centrex needle off zero.
 
Hopefully the carriers haven’t taken that “infrastructure” focus as a limit on their upward mobility.
 
From Without — the UC/Team Collaboration Industry: Following its long-standing theme of chasing the bright shiny object, the UC/team collaboration industry seems to have moved past mobility. Following the introduction of Apple’s iPhone in 2007 (the archetypal “bright shiny object”), the industry went full tilt to be “mobile first” (it learned that phrase, too). What followed was a spate of those half-baked FMC ideas referenced above, but now the UC/team collaboration players have moved on to artificial intelligence (after a dalliance with IoT — for Avaya and Mitel, in particular — that lasted about as long as a bad case of gas). While the enhanced mobile broadband capability in 5G (i.e., the same cellular data service we have now, only faster) should improve video performance, as far as enhancing FMC, that will hinge on the cellular networks getting over themselves and opening up to business cases that don’t center on consumers.
 
Until the UC/team collaboration industry can muster the ability to focus on two things simultaneously, “mobile” is going to be off these guys’ to-do list.
 
From Beyond — the Consumer Market: As is often the case, my bet is on the consumer market. Unless there’s a regulatory or security case to be made, IT’s ability to mandate personal productivity choices (like which text, videoconferencing, navigation, etc.) solution to use is all but evaporated. That scenario does not play well for the UC/team collaboration vendors that sell through IT.
 
It seems that for reasons of fame and fortune, the preponderance of development talent has been drawn to the consumer market, and that has replaced the enterprise space as the place we look to for creative applications of technology. Creativity still thrives in the enterprise, but it has shifted to production, distribution, warehousing, and other blocking-and-tackling pursuits.
 
I don’t know what phenomenal product and service ideas will be forthcoming from 5G, but I know where I’ll be looking for them.
 
Conclusion
The message here is that 5G is an enabler, not an end unto itself.
 
However, I can’t close without sounding a positive note for infrastructure. I’ve spent my entire career building things that almost no one ever sees; we get few requests for tours of the data center or the wiring closets any more. When I used to teach networking, I would joke that our goal in networking was “anonymity,” because if they remember your name, it’s probably because you screwed up. All we do is make everything else work.
 
If there’s a major initiative that requires networking expertise, we will be involved, and hopefully, someone will actually listen to us! However, when the champagne corks are popping on that initiative, our guys will be at the help desk “striving for anonymity.”
 
If I wanted to be famous, I could have stuck with music, but in the end, being the dependable one isn’t a bad career choice.
 
This post is written on behalf of BCStrategies, an industry resource for enterprises, vendors, system integrators, and anyone interested in the growing business communications arena. A supplier of objective information on business communications, BCStrategies is supported by an alliance of leading communication industry advisors, analysts, and consultants who have worked in the various segments of the dynamic business communications market.

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