Next-Generation Unified Communications:
Benefits Without Limits
BY JOHN LEIKNESS
Service providers are always looking for the perfect ï¿½killerï¿½
application that generates additional revenue and gives them a competitive
edge in the marketplace. Intense competition in the telecommunications
market has forced providers to differentiate themselves via services.
However, their legacy voice mail systems make it difficult to provide more
than the voice services they already offer. As a result, many service
providers are seeking ways to deploy systems that leverage legacy voice
mail platforms, while still enabling the delivery of new voice services.
This is where next-generation Internet Protocol (IP)-based services fit
in: Bridging the public switched telephone network, Internet, broadband,
and wireless networks, and allowing a variety of client devices to
communicate. With new unified communication systems, users can consolidate
their messages into a single mailbox while accessing new value-added
Legacy Issues Block Migration To IP
Since the mid-1980s, service providers have deployed PSTN-based voice mail
systems for wireline and wireless subscribers. Basic voice mail has been
immensely successful in both arenas, and has turned into a significant
revenue source for providers, through specific monthly billing for
residential users, and increased airtime usage and monthly service fees
for mobile customers. With approximately 400 million voice mail-boxes in
use today around the world, the direct revenue and increased usage
resulting from voice mail services is significant, making this basic
service a true ï¿½cash cowï¿½ that service providers canï¿½t afford to
The capital investment in these legacy voice mail systems is also
significant. A service providerï¿½s wireline and wireless groups often
have investments in voice mail platforms independent of each other,
compounding the challenges of moving to a new platform. Acquisitions have
further complicated the mix of voice mail systems, providing different
user interfaces, features, networking protocols and levels of investment.
Proprietary architectures make adding new services costly and slow.
Additionally, legacy systems historically have been positioned at, or
near, the Class 5 switches throughout the service providerï¿½s territory.
This also contributes to the high investment cost in legacy systems:
Inefficiently using voice mail ports ï¿½ one system may be overloaded,
while another is idle; tying up expensive central office space; and
requiring additional administration and maintenance.
Communications In An IP World
New IP-based solutions are beginning to tackle these issues head-on by
offering products that allow the service provider to cap the legacy system
and grow subscribers on the new system. These new systems generally supply
features that minimize impact on customers by providing a similar
telephone-user interface, end-user features, migration tools and a voice
mail networking solution. New systems can easily connect to any network,
thereby bridging PSTN wireline and wireless services to an IP network
solution. The power of IP-based applications allows the service provider
to add new services and revenues without affecting the ï¿½cash cow.ï¿½
The new IP-based systems can be placed at a single, centralized
location connecting ï¿½ by an IP gateway over the service providerï¿½s
network ï¿½ to remote Class 5 switches. This makes more efficient use of
voice mail ports, frees up central office space, and significantly reduces
operations costs with less administration and maintenance. These new
systems also provide the opportunity to unify wireline and wireless
mailboxes and offer a mechanism to launch targeted ï¿½micro-servicesï¿½ on
a trial basis, quickly and efficiently. If a new service is determined to
be viable, it can be launched in the network with very low investment.
This paves the path for true unified communications and value-added
The Unity Of Unified Communications
IP-based unified communications create ï¿½unityï¿½ at several levels.
Users control all of the ways that information reaches them by having one
unified mailbox for e-mail, fax, and voice mail. Service providers can
unify their messaging services across fixed, mobile, and Internet access
networks, boosting their brand and reducing customer churn. Customers
perceive value through the elimination of multiple separate mailboxes, and
benefit from ensuring that nothing has been missed, because they have ï¿½anytime,
anywhereï¿½ access to all messages. This is achieved through aliases ï¿½
providing unique greetings depending on the called number ï¿½ and enhanced
notification and filtering.
Improving access to messages and providing increased notification is
just the first step in improving contact and communication for
subscribers. The addition of other technologies, such as automatic speech
recognition, text-to-speech, and voice portal in this new environment,
will not only increase the ease of use but help drive higher usage.
Prepare for the Onslaught
Although not yet widely deployed, these types of unified communications
applications have gained significant momentum over the past year, as a
number of product announcements, partnerships, acquisitions, and hosted
services have pushed the market forward. With an abundance of new products
coming to market and the maturing of technologies, such as voice over IP,
unified communications promises to move out from under the ï¿½early
adopterï¿½ umbrella and into the mainstream sooner rather than later.
However, to fully realize the potential of unified communications,
providers will need to explore layered architecture approaches that
converge various network types. In fact, many aspects of true unified
communications systems lie in utilizing IP-based networks and the
softswitch framework they employ.
The Role of Softswitch
Up until this point, the hardware-centric nature of the existing PSTN,
based on traditional circuit-based switches, left service providers little
room for innovation, especially in relation to subscriber services like
unified communications, instant messaging, presence and location-based
services. The deployment of a softswitch in an IP network greatly enhances
network flexibility, creating a receptive environment for the creation and
delivery of new services, like unified communications. The softswitch
performs intelligent call handling between IP devices, and integrates with
the legacy PSTN through media gateways. In this way, services providers
benefit from a hybrid network ï¿½ capitalizing on the significant
investments theyï¿½ve made in the PSTN infrastructure, while netting the
flexibility and service creation power of IP.
The softswitch is an open interconnection of software modules that
dictates call control, signaling, protocol mediation and service creation
within a converged network. Optimally, the softswitch performs intelligent
call handling between media gateways independent of: Access (e.g.,
wireline, wireless, narrowband, or broadband); medium (e.g., voice, data,
fax, or video); and speed.
In fact, it is this softswitch framework that makes it possible to
bring Internet-style creativity to traditional telephony services, setting
the stage for service providers to customize offerings based on their
customersï¿½ individual needs and personal preferences.
Unified Communications Ups the Ante
In addition to the softswitch, service providers that intend to fully
deliver on the promise of unified communications need an application
creation environment that fosters and facilitates creativity.
A unified communications service creation platform in a softswitch
environment not only makes it possible for carriers to deliver new
services quickly, but also to leverage the advantages of high bandwidth IP
by adding significant value to their most common applications. These
systems are ï¿½always onï¿½ and also make it possible for media streams to
be managed independently. For example, consider a conferencing
application. Not only are ï¿½meet meï¿½ or ad hoc conferences set up
quickly; but new, advanced features are also possible, like: The ability
to use remote muting of a noisy location or on-hold music; the ability to
receive a ï¿½whisperï¿½ to tell you that someone is trying to reach you;
and the ability to set up a private, sidebar conversation. All this points
to a future in which users have many choices in the way they communicate
ï¿½ voice, voice mail, video, text chat, e-mail ï¿½ and many devices on
which to do so. Unified communications and softswitch technology will
bring the applications and service capabilities necessary to manage this
menagerie of choices, increasing usersï¿½ control of their interaction
with the rest of the world.
Unified Communications: No Longer Just Talk
In the very near future, service providers that want to remain competitive
will need to deliver sophisticated unified communications services that
allow subscribers to access any message at any time from any device. To
give consumers the convenience they crave in terms of managing messages,
service providers will need to bridge legacy voice communications systems,
e-mail and IP telephony systems, and wireless data access, while combining
many media types into an advanced unified networking environment.
This will require migrating to a new type of network architecture, but
the effort will be worthwhile. The good news is that systems are here
today to help protect the service providerï¿½s investment, bridging
subscribers to the new environment while adding value along the way.
Customers that see an improvement in their productivity and efficiency by
using unified communications will be less interested in competitive
offerings and more likely to become high-end users of the providerï¿½s
telecommunications services. This, of course, will be reflected by
increased revenue for the service provider.
John Leikness is the director of Enhanced Services at CommWorks
Corporation, a 3Com Company, and a member of the TeleMessaging Industry
Association (TMIA). Please visit CommWorksï¿½ Web site at www.commworks.com.
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