ITEXPO begins in:   New Coverage :  Asterisk  |  Fax Software  |  SIP Phones  |  Small Cells

Feature Article
May 2002

Next-Generation Unified Communications: Benefits Without Limits


Service providers are always looking for the perfect �killer� 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 services.

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 �cash cow� that service providers can�t afford to disrupt.

The capital investment in these legacy voice mail systems is also significant. A service provider�s 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 provider�s territory. This also contributes to the high investment cost in legacy systems: Inefficiently using voice mail ports � 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 �cash cow.�

The new IP-based systems can be placed at a single, centralized location connecting � by an IP gateway over the service provider�s network � 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 �micro-services� 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 services.

The Unity Of Unified Communications
IP-based unified communications create �unity� 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 �anytime, anywhere� access to all messages. This is achieved through aliases � providing unique greetings depending on the called number � 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 �early adopter� 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 � capitalizing on the significant investments they�ve 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 customers� 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 �always on� and also make it possible for media streams to be managed independently. For example, consider a conferencing application. Not only are �meet me� 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 �whisper� 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 � voice, voice mail, video, text chat, e-mail � 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 users� 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 provider�s 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 provider�s 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 CommWorks� Web site at www.commworks.com.

[ Return To The May 2002 Table Of Contents ]

Today @ TMC
Upcoming Events
ITEXPO West 2012
October 2- 5, 2012
The Austin Convention Center
Austin, Texas
The World's Premier Managed Services and Cloud Computing Event
Click for Dates and Locations
Mobility Tech Conference & Expo
October 3- 5, 2012
The Austin Convention Center
Austin, Texas
Cloud Communications Summit
October 3- 5, 2012
The Austin Convention Center
Austin, Texas