March 23, 2006
 

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March 1, 2006

Strategy: 'Last Mile' Effort

By working with technology partners to offer converged-network systems, cellular providers hope to attract and keep business users with lower costs and more features. By Tim Scannell
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Pity the poor wireless carriers. They take a number of promotional approaches in an effort to build and maintain their subscriber bases, ranging from “Can you hear me now?” campaigns that stress reliability to advertisements that stress video services and network accessibility. All of these campaigns point out how much better one type of service is over another in a branding war that is, for the most part, based on wireless one-upmanship.

In the long run, however, the most effective way to catch the eyes of enterprise customers may not lie in how well a carrier plays individually but how well that wireless service provider interacts and integrates with other providers of networking and network services. In fact, many current business customers of cellular wireless services may look to their service providers as solutions integrators, to at least provide a qualified referral to other vendors who may previously have been seen as a competitor in that last-mile connection from cell tower to office cubicle.

“I honestly didn’t have time to go out and compare features and functionality,” says Jack Canavera, telecommunications manager at America’s Center, one of the largest convention centers in the United States and host to events ranging from auto shows to NCAA basketball tournaments. So when the Center wanted to add more wireless services for its clients, Canavera turned to Verizon Select Service for advice, since it already provided maintenance and technical support to the America’s Center complex. Verizon then recommended the River City Technology Group, a local systems integrator that specializes in designing and building wireless networks, to coordinate the installation of an 802.11 Wi-Fi system at the Center.

Similarly, for the City of Burbank, expanding its wireless and high-speed wired systems meant working with multiple vendors, including Juniper Networks, which already provided the proprietary networking framework used by city personnel and had a technology that was flexible enough to absorb a new public Wi-Fi system from a much smaller vendor. Since Juniper has a lot of expertise in juggling advanced IP traffic processing and converged networks, adding one more technology to the mix wasn’t a problem, and it was able to deliver such things as wide-scale voice over IP (VoIP) services.

Converging for Cost
Most medium and large-scale companies are looking seriously at converged wired and wireless alternatives in an effort to contain costs, which in the case of cellular can be substantial, and to add more control and management to communications and data systems that may be fractured by too many disparate and incompatible systems, observes Heather Howland, director of marketing at Ascendent Systems, which specializes in enterprise-class voice mobility solutions. It is important to be able to work in just about any environment and across multiple PBXs and networks,” she says. It is also critical to work with any type of wireless phone and to avoid the proprietary handset approaches that may be offered by some of the better-known players such as Avaya and Nortel Networks, “which may limit you to only one network.”

While cost-savings is usually the initial motivator for considering a converged communications network that mingles less-expensive last-mile connectivity alternatives with cellular wireless services, it is the wide range of features and capabilities offered by such solutions that ultimately push a customer over the buying edge, notes Howland. “Once you pick up a call you have full PBX functionality, which is a big difference between cellular and traditional VoIP systems offered by companies like Vonage, which are aimed more at the consumer market.”

Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, for example, selected Ascendent Systems to install a solution that would allow users to be connected anywhere and any time, and to be integrated into the hospital’s existing telephony system. The ability to assign a single number to all personnel, regardless of the communications device used, as well as the ability to instantly pull teams and groups together through the get me/find me conferencing feature were big motivators in the decision process. The system was due to be fully deployed to more than 1,400 people at Cedars-Sinai by the end of last year.

Likewise, the IT group at Dana Automotive’s Torque and Traction Division, one of the leading auto suppliers in the world, turned to Ascendent when it wanted a system that could merge its office PBX with its existing Nextel cellular network (now part of Sprint PCS) and channel voice and text messages from both systems out to workers away from their desks, whether on the manufacturing floor or out in the field. All of this was reportedly accomplished without compromising the integrity or features of the existing PBX network.

The challenge of being able to reach out and touch virtually anyone at any time is expected to become a more critical issue as the number of mobilized employees increases. By 2009, there will be more than 850 million people across the globe who can be classified as mobile workers, up from 650 million in 2004, says market research firm International Data Corp. (IDC). Mobile workers include those people who roam around offices, as well as non-office-based mobile workers and home-based individuals.

Lights, Camera, Converged Communications!
Employees at Crawford Communications, a broadcast production and post-production facility in Atlanta, Ga., use a converged wireless solution from Ascendent to maintain connections with clients in the fast-paced world of television. The company has about 350 workers, none of whom spend too much time at their desks, says Mike Greene, IT manager at the 23-year-old company that divides its time between audio, video, satellite and Internet activities.

It is not unusual, for example, to have workers and clients racing between four different production suites and everyone trying to communicate with cell phones and traditional landline desk phones during production for a cable television show. Previous to installing the Ascendent solution, everyone would be playing phone tag and leaving voicemails to track people down, explains Greene, which was “eating up cellular minutes and created a whole lot of chaos.” Now that the system is installed, everyone can be reached via a single number, and teams can easily be pulled together through the existing PBX network.

Rather than view these third-party solutions-providers as competition, wireless carriers see them as extending their business model by providing a ridge between cellular wireless and traditional office networks. In Crawford’s case, for example, Cingular Wireless introduced the company to Ascendent Systems to add more functionality to the existing 250 cell phones in use and as an alternative to a proprietary Nortel Networks system that was brought in as a solutions pilot. This system did some of the same basic things as the Ascendent solution but could only work within the building, with an internal antenna system and with handsets costing about $600 each, says Greene, noting that the curtain quickly came down on this pilot.

While cost-savings is a major factor in deploying a system that can cut down on the amount of in-house cellular traffic and result in a savings of thousands of dollars each month, one of the more important benefits is the client’s ability to almost immediately get through to an employee. “You can’t put a price on a customer calling in and actually talking to someone,” notes Greene. The system is also useful when you have to reach a key person while he or she is on the road, he says, pointing to one instance where he temporarily changed his user dial preferences to channel calls to an airport payphone. He then used his cellular phone to reset dialing preferences when the payphone call was completed.

The Crawford Communications telephony-on-the-fly system is also used to automatically alert engineering or maintenance teams when a satellite transmission fails or the power drops—both critical issues in the broadcast world. In these cases, the Ascendent system instantly locates and connects team members, who can then discuss and hopefully solve a broadcast-related problem, says Greene, who is a member of the engineering team.

Catching On Like Wildfire
The idea of converging wide area and local area networking technologies is not new. In fact, Nortel Networks and others have been dabbling in this area for several years, and companies such as RadioFrame Networks offer packaged solutions that use software-defined radios to provide up to 250,000 square feet of coverage per communications node. Other solution providers, such as Padcom USA, offer systems that can instantly channel communications through proprietary, cellular and public Wi-Fi networks to save money and select the most appropriate route based on the sensitivity of the information and security levels.

Years ago, during the Internet boom times, a startup company launched a technology called Wildfire, which used agent technology and voice communications to track down and locate users via wired and wireless devices. However, the technology never really took off and most recently surfaced as a voice input system offered on the Orange wireless network in the U.K. and France. However, these and other similar systems did not offer tight connections to a company’s existing PBX network or access to team-building features such as collaborative networking.

Multi-network converged systems have come a long way, and they have a long way to go as handset manufacturers develop new phones and wireless carriers provide even more applications to attract and keep subscribers. While the future is bright, there are still some variables on the road ahead that may create some connectivity detours. One such variable is Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA), which is a proposed standard for mobile and Wi-Fi convergence that has been ratified by some of the leading players in the industry, including Samsung, LG Electronics, Motorola and Nokia. Basically, the technology will allow users to effortlessly jump from and roam through cellular networks and public and private WLANs using dual-mode mobile handsets.

“The technology will let you walk in the front door of an office and go from a GSM to an IT network, using the same handset,” explains Steve Shaw, director of marketing for Kineto Wireless, a developer of UMA-compliant software, development tools and support services. “This is important to the cellular carriers looking to provide last-mile connectivity and extend their phones to work over IP networks and broadband in the office.” UMA also provides single-number connectivity across different network and handset platforms, as well as a significant cost-savings to users, since the technology uses less expensive wireless routes.

The problem, however, is that in order to work, a new generation of UMA-aware phones must be developed that incorporates technology developed by Kineto Wireless and others. This could take time, considering how long users hang on to their old-technology phones and the time it takes for UMA-centric networks to root. UMA received global standardization last April, when the specification was ratified by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP). The latest developed release of UMA is also available for download on the UMA Web site, which is another positive sign.

Still, there are no commercial deployments of UMA yet and a lot of confusion created by less-powerful and flexible VoIP alternatives from Vonage, Skype and others. “There is absolutely a battle between Wi-Fi and cellular,” notes Kineto’s Steve Shaw. But, “the real play is to move minutes off GSM and into the IP network, and cellular operators want to maintain and grow customers with additional services.” •

Tim Scannell is the founder and chief analyst of Shoreline Research, and U.S. managing director for 2in10 Ltd., a global product and channel marketing firm based in Scotland.

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