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Feature Article
May 2004


VoIP In The Palm Of Your Hand

BY SEAN KENT

Sometime in the near future:
It is Saturday morning. Alan sits alone at a table in a coffee shop slowly sipping a large cappuccino. His advanced smart phone sits on the table. It is connected to the Internet via Wi-Fi so he can read up on the latest events of the day on a global news Web site while simultaneously listening to some new MP3 files from his favorite band�s upcoming album. With his wireless Bluetooth earpiece, he doesn�t have to take his phone with him when he gets up to retrieve extra napkins. The singer�s voice continues singing in his ear both to and from the napkin and condiment caddy.

Alan returns to his small table and is about midway though listening to the second song when he sees a screen pop telling him that a call is coming in from his friend Lance. Alan is subscribed to a unified communications (UC) service. Using its �find me� feature, the UC service recognizes that he is located in a Wi-Fi cloud and automatically determines that it will be cheaper and offer better quality of service to deliver the call via VoIP over Wireless LAN (VoWLAN).

Since it is still early on Saturday, Alan decides to let the call ring through to his voice mail. He�s trying to keep his options open for the weekend, but he wants to know what Lance is calling about, so he clicks a button on the phone to activate the listen-in voice mail feature. Lance begins leaving the message, which the UC service instantly turns into a real-time audio stream. He tells Alan�s voice mail that he has scored tickets to that night�s basketball game.

Alan thinks that sounds like a great way to spend the evening, so he breaks into the call and tells Lance to count him in. The two hash out all of the details, say their goodbyes and Alan goes back to listening to the new MP3 tracks. He thinks about how his weekend is shaping up to be pretty great, takes another sip of cappuccino and smiles.

It is difficult to tell exactly just how far in the future that scenario might happen, but all of the essential elements are beginning to fall into place. It�s clear that at least two things have to happen first � the right access technologies have to be consolidated on a smart phone that people want to use, and wireless data networks have to be properly engineered to support VoIP. These are issues that handset makers and carriers must address, but application vendors, too, will be affected by the outcome.

The future could be coming sooner, rather than later. VoIP has been on the upswing for the past several months in North America. While VoIP�s popularity is on the rise, it hasn�t reached widespread acceptance yet. That is due, at least in part, to current market circumstances. VoIP proponents have tried to sell equipment and services based on increased cost efficiencies. The benefits for the enterprise are obvious, but consumers are being forced to choose between VoIP and similarly priced traditional local/long distance service packages. The cost benefits aren�t proving great enough to motivate the general consumer to switch. That lack of motivation has caused VoIP companies to look for other value propositions the technology could offer.

Consistently, VoIP sellers have found that it is the increased level of customization that is attractive to consumers. With traditional telephony, users don�t have the freedoms of VoIP. They lack the ability to change account parameters, they can�t decouple physical access from the service to take their phone number with them wherever they go, and they don�t have easy-to-use call control features.

For application vendors who provide enhanced call control applications and unified messaging features, the increased focus on VoIP�s customizability, both at wireline (and eventually) wireless levels, means there will be new opportunities. Those services like UC that didn�t pan out when they were introduced near the turn of the millennium will get new life.

To understand why UC is poised for a comeback, it�s probably a good idea to first talk about why it didn�t succeed initially. About 10 years ago, telephone companies were offering 1-500-NXX-XXXX find me/follow me services � an enhanced service that was a precursor to UC. Every carrier deployed some sort of find me/follow me offering, but programming the service to ring through properly was a nightmare. Users, many of whom simply weren�t tech savvy, had to wade through confusing IVR prompts and hope for the best.

Perhaps more importantly, there was a fundamental disconnect in the idea that people wanted to be reachable by phone no matter where they were. Even with the ubiquity of mobile phones today, people tend to give out their mobile number only to individuals with whom they want to speak. Most people prefer to avoid receiving random phone calls.

The personal 500 and 800 services with find-me/follow-me did survive but never became popular. The number of people using the service today is extremely limited. Unified communications suffered a similar fate, but its problem wasn�t with programming. Like the traditional 500 find me/follow me, UC faced a similar fundamental disconnect. In this case, the problem for UC was that people tend to check and use their mailboxes (voice, e-mail, fax, etc.) discreetly and exclusively, meaning they didn�t want to go to a single source to check all of their mail.
With original UC, users were required to use complex IVR menus or log on to a desktop computer to change parameters of their service. The time it took to log on, check the various mailboxes and configure the system was no faster than checking individual mailboxes on the separate devices to which they were assigned. UC promised to help users save time and improve communications management, but in its initial format, those promises turned out to be empty, leaving users no incentive to buy into UC.

In addition, as items like the Blackberry and Wi-Fi-enabled laptops were introduced, UC features such as the ability to listen to a text-to-speech version of an e-mail via the mobile phone or home phone became tedious and largely pointless. Yet, while they rendered some services obsolete, these mobile devices breathed new life into features like visual voice mail and e-mail notification of new voice mail messages.

Now, back to our friend in the coffee shop. Alan�s advanced smart phone is a consolidated mobile computer/phone, which simultaneously supports GSM, GPRS and Wi-Fi network access and is packaged within the PDA form factor. The growing popularity of smart phones signals market acceptance of that form factor as acceptable to the user for receiving voice and data. Users did not accept earlier UC attempts to use the PC and an accompanying headset as a voice delivery device. As the design of smart phones continues to improve, and with the addition of new power-efficient network access technologies and standards-based VoIP-enabled applications, the line between phone and mobile computer will be blurred even further.

Wi-Fi already has been integrated into laptops. Wi-Fi-enabled smart phones are the next step. While this might be alarming to some wireless service providers, it needn�t be. The access-selection feature built into the phone will enable the smart phone to determine the best way for the user to communicate. In areas where Wi-Fi connectivity is prevalent, the phone will recognize the better quality of service and cost advantage available through Wi-Fi and connect the user via VoWLAN. And in cases were VoWLAN will not work, such as in a moving vehicle or in areas where Wi-Fi coverage is poor, the phone�s access-selection feature will recognize that the best quality of service is available via the cellular network and will connect a call accordingly.

An enhanced UC application vendor will supply the VoWLAN-aware, find-me service and the listen-in voice mail feature. These particular UC features have the potential to be highly attractive to users. The leading complaint of many mobile phone users is that cellular coverage is poor or that phones don�t work well indoors. Also, people complain that voice mail doesn�t offer them the ability to screen calls the way an answering machine does. With a VoWLAN-aware UC network-hosted service and the Wi-Fi-enabled smart phones, those concerns would be eliminated.

The only real roadblock that remains for these technologies is that the price points are still too high. Smart phones are expensive when compared to mobile phones, and they lack enough features to replace the highly mobile laptop.
Advances in VoIP use may still be a few years in the future, but for now, companies that develop and sell VoIP equipment and services will need to look beyond the traditional �cost efficiencies� selling point. VoIP has other value propositions, including better quality of service and greater mobility. Focusing on these additional values will help to increase general consumer interest in VoIP.

Sean Kent is Director of Architecture/Technology for SS8 Networks, which engineers a complete range of enhanced messaging products and applications that enable service providers to profitably operate converged, hybrid networks � bridging PSTN and IP capabilities. The company�s carrier-class offerings allow network operators to optimize their investment in traditional, legacy networks and seamlessly transition to next-generation networks.

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