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Unified Communications: It's About Mobility

CTIA estimates there are 255 million cellular telephone subscribers in the U.S. versus roughly 180 million wired telephone lines. While several million young Americans now get along without a wired telephone, the dependence on mobile communications is even more prevalent in business. For outside sales and support personnel, in particular, the cell phone has become their primary phone, and even people who move around within a company's headquarters or campus are often reachable only via cell phones.

However, there are still vastly different capabilities between fixed and mobile environments. Wired connections can access an expanding array of features that allow fast, convenient multimedia communications through an integrated portal that provides real-time presence capabilities. When they shift to the mobile, however, they revert to a communications environment that has changed little since the 1980s, except for the fact that they can "cut the cord." Just ask any mobile user who has had to dial two or three voicemail systems to retrieve messages and then log in to retrieve email.

UC vendors are waking up to the fact that mobilizing the UC experience is becoming critical to user adoption. The most basic element of mobile UC is fixed-mobile convergence (FMC) or the ability to integrate cellular service with wired or wireless private networks and to pass calls transparently between them. When done right, FMC yields both management improvements and functionality benefits. Wireless analyst and NoJitter correspondent, Michael Finneran, has written a comprehensive white paper on enterprise FMC that is available on the UCStrategies website.

For example, productivity increases when people can be reached at a single number and access their messages on a single voicemail system. However, the organization also benefits as it maintains control of the telephone number--business contacts call the office number and the call is then extended to the user's cell phone.

That latter capability is extremely important. If an employee leaves the company, employers want that person's contacts to continue calling that same number. Otherwise those business contacts may follow that person to his/her new employer.

But the cellular carriers have been slow to implement FMC solutions and, to date, FMC only addresses the most basic service--a phone call. The simple reality is that traveling employees and mobile workers need more.

The IP-PBX vendors are beginning to respond. In a typical configuration, a user is equipped with a smart phone, Blackberry or PDA that provides access to presence-enabled corporate directories, the corporate dial plan and other features like visual voicemail (i.e. the ability to view voicemail messages on the device's display and play them in whatever order you choose). These solutions depend on a software client installed in the smart phone/PDA that communicates via a cellular data service with a server on the IP-PBX. The IP-PBX capabilities are made available on the device by using the cellular data network as a signaling mechanism.

Even with these solutions, however, the industry still has a long way to go. Eventually, we'll see a fully-functional mobile device paired with a desk phone. The mobile device will register with a presence server, indicating that the user is accessible via a wired network, WLAN network or cellular network.

A Bluetooth interface in the mobile device will play a key role, automatically registering with the desk phone when the user enters the office. That registration will signal the server to deliver calls to the desk set and automatically change the user's presence status as well. The full range of desk set features will transfer to the mobile device whether it's operating on the WLAN or the cellular network, and the range of options for the mobile user will eventually include text and video as well as voice.

Users love mobility, and in our dynamic business environment these capabilities will help to increase the productivity of our most valuable workers. For UC to expand throughout an organization, a fully featured mobility solution will have to be part of the package.

What do you think? Have you seen or heard about mobile UC apps or capabilities that you believe move the bar? Drop me a note at [email protected]