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A New Public Network?

A new public network won’t be embraced just because it's more technically compelling; it also has to shed the baggage carried by today’s PSTN/Internet.

Two articles posted on No Jitter early this week are notable for their shared opinion that a new crop of leaders is about to emerge in enterprise UC and collaboration. Writing from quite different perspectives, Sonus's Mykola Konrad and long-time industry analyst Tom Nolle show how Google, Facebook and the soon-to-be tandem of Skype-Microsoft could overturn the market landscape.

Konrad writes, "I believe that we are witnessing the rapid emergence of what is in essence, a new PSTN alternative in the guise of social networks, like Facebook and Groupon, and providers like Skype, Google and Baidu. This alternative will allow companies to extend unified communication consumerization to their voice architectures--both at the network fabric layer and at the device layer."

He continues, "I can envision a future where companies no longer have PBXs as we currently know them on their premises or even as we currently know 'cloud-based solutions.' Instead, a session border controller (SBC) will connect them to SIP trunks offered through Microsoft/Skype, which is then peered with the Facebook network but obtains its voice features from the Google cloud."

Nolle takes a different tack but arrives at a complementary conclusion: "Traditional UC/UCC players need to think about their role in the future, and there’s really only one role that will be available--the supporting role. Remember, company communication has always leveraged public communications services. If 'public communications services' means social-network-integrated communications, the UC/UCC players need to start thinking about how they'll integrate with social networks."

Nolle argues that the traditional UC/UCC vendors face three basic options: Create their own social framework for communications and collaborations, ally with one of emerging winners or accept what Nolle calls "a secondary role." For reasons he describes in his post, he believes that option 3, traditional vendors become secondary, is the most likely outcome.

Both posts have much to commend them. Konrad emphasizes the enterprise voice architecture angle, with session border controllers evolving into a linchpin device equipped with a new, much broader array of capabilities. Since SBCs are a key product line for Sonus, Konrad's enthusiasm for this view isn't surprising, but it's also true that SIP Trunking is growing by leaps and bounds and SBCs are integral to their use. While cost-savings currently drives the interest in SIP Trunking, it also offers the potential for new applications in conjunction with the familiar carriers or with Skype and the social networking service providers.

There are plenty ways to react to these two posts: Some may want to slit their wrists, others may choose to revisit their stock portfolios and there'll also be a group that will begin to weep with joy and shout Hallelujah! Go ahead, but also consider the following:

* Security and Privacy: In recent months we've seen even the most hardened networks--government, military, financial services--hacked, jacked, cracked and whacked. With which of the anointed emerging giants--the Skype/Microsoft duo, Google or Facebook--would you put your enterprise's corporate jewels? Yeah, that's what I thought.

* Business Models: Google's current stock price doesn't reflect any revenues from enterprise IT/comms, nor does Facebook's pre-IPO valuation. Both companies share a common mission: Aggregating eyeballs to serve advertisers. Have you seen any evidence that they intend to create the human and technical infrastructure to support enterprise IT? Me neither.

* Openness: Skype is an amazing service that has attracted millions of subscribers world-wide, all of whom are OK staying within Skype's walled garden because the price is right--it's free. And corporate users have been cool with it too, albeit for limited purposes. So it's big news when Skype announces Skype for SIP or Skype for Asterisk, because, well, it's big news when Skype talks to anyone other than itself. Similarly, we've learned, often the hard way, that a product or service that has "SIP" on the label doesn't mean diddly-doo when it comes to interoperability. Konrad's vision is very appealing, but it's going to take a lot of hard work and investment to overcome the interoperability, management, number-scheme and other issues that are pre-conditions for it to become reality.

This is not to throw cold water on the arguments that Konrad and Nolle have put forward. They're right about UC&C needing a boost, and they paint a picture that is more nuanced and appealing than anything that's been advanced thus far by devotees of the "Cloud." While there may be differences in their visions of the "new public network," their essential idea about a new public network emerging seems inevitable.

But from an enterprise perspective, a new public network won’t be embraced just because it's more technically compelling; it also has to shed the baggage carried by today’s PSTN/Internet. Tackling the three bullet points above--security/privacy, business models and openness--would be a great place to start.