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Feature Article
July 2003

Unified Communications: Can IP Really Bring It All Together?


Voice messaging is one of the most common and heavily subscribed enhanced services available on the market today, and unified communications is a natural progression towards unifying and managing messaging of many types. Voice mail is already widely deployed on legacy systems and now the superior economics and advanced capabilities of packet-based platforms provide a solid business case for implementing unified communications on next-generation voice networks. With packet networks, improvements in network efficiency, simplified management, and flexible configurations result in significantly lower operating costs, and IP-enabled applications such as unified communications allow carriers to differentiate themselves, build brand loyalty, and reduce subscriber churn.

Unified Communications: Carrier and End-User Benefits
Unified communications offers several benefits to carriers. With subscriber numbers rising, the carrier revenue opportunity from messaging applications is exceptional. Messaging and unified communications generate additional revenue for the service provider by increasing call completion for calls that would otherwise be lost to busy or no-answer responses. From an infrastructure perspective, carriers can deploy a common platform for the delivery and management of multiple messaging services, resulting in lower costs for equipment, network transport, and ongoing operations. IP-based messaging applications also expedite time to market and return on investment, increasing profitability over legacy implementations.

For the end user, unified communications offers relief for individuals who are inundated with messages from various sources, such as voice mail, e-mail, and fax. Unified communications enables a virtual message location where all messages can be stored and retrieved independent of medium or access device. Packet-based unified communications can save subscribers time and increase productivity with many personalized options that enhance customer loyalty. Additionally, self-provisioning capabilities provide a new level of customer service and control, giving Web browser access to features, billing, and other services.

What Makes IP The Choice For Enhanced Voice Services?
Unified communications belongs to a class of enhanced services, applications that go beyond traditional access and trunking offerings. These are typically value-added applications that provide incremental revenues by allowing carriers to charge a premium on top of standard service fees. Additionally, carriers can bundle these services to address particular market segments, creating brand loyalty and enabling them to compete on more than price alone.

These business benefits make deploying enhanced services a no-brainer for the service provider. However, the legacy circuit-switched architecture that is the foundation of current PSTN does not lend itself to the easy, rapid, and cost-effective implementation of enhanced services, particularly services such as unified communications, which converge multiple media types.

Today�s IP voice networks make the deployment of enhanced services much more straightforward. IP service architecture is implemented in a unit separate from the switch, called an application server. Unlike the service nodes used in the circuit switch world, application servers leverage functions of the softswitch and gateway, leaving service developers to focus on applications rather than supporting PSTN functions.

IP Application Server Architecture
Packet voice architecture inherently separates the voice path, handled by the gateway, from the signaling that is performed by the softswitch. Based on the same technology as data, packet voice networks can leverage compression techniques and existing data infrastructure for more cost-effective implementations and better use of bandwidth.

The application server receives real-time call progress information on the state of ingress and egress calls via a standard signaling interface like SIP. Routing, authorization, and other events such as DTMF tones are also communicated to the application server via this SIP interface. The application server can use this interface to communicate easily with both the softswitch and the gateway, giving it complete control of the call without supporting the actual voice path. This significantly reduces the network resources required for services, while still enabling important mid-call functions.

Deployment is also much more streamlined with packet-based systems versus circuit switches. Since IP services reside in application servers on the packet network rather than within traditional TDM switches, they can be centralized in one location for easy implementation, maintenance, and provisioning. The physical location of the service platform is transparent to the network and scalability can easily be achieved simply by adding processing power to the existing platform. Most significant, however, are the cost savings from not having to backhaul voice traffic to a central location or purchase services platforms for each region. This is especially true for applications that are often geographically distributed, such as call centers, prepaid/calling cards, and voice VPN.

IP Facilitates Enhanced Services Innovation
Packet-based service architecture finally achieves the goal of allowing applications to evolve rapidly. The standard signaling interface eliminates the need for new switch software for every new feature, finally giving developers the ability to advance without being limited by other vendors. IP signaling includes far fewer protocols and variants than the PSTN and they do not vary by country. It is also helpful that clear industry standards are emerging to facilitate rapid global deployment of packet voice networks and enhanced services. With PSTN signaling, routing, and other functions handled by the softswitch and gateway, the application server is left to focus on only service-related functions, speeding development of innovative new services. Application servers can also leverage high-density, carrier-grade, off-the-shelf hardware with advanced performance and scalability.

The open, standards-based approach of next-generation networks promotes interoperability and makes it easier for multiple services to work together. Since IP service platforms do not have to handle the voice media itself but focus on the control elements, developers can concentrate on service logic and create best-of-breed applications. Service features can evolve separate from the switching platform without legacy signaling constraints, encouraging rapid innovation.

In fact, without legacy constraints, developers can implement sophisticated provisioning tools that further simplify the user experience. Companies no longer need trained PBX technicians to add extensions in the office. Employees can provision their own service, while still allowing the enterprise to control the options available to each person. This flexibility dramatically reduces time to market, churn, and operational expenses.

Finally, delivering voice over data networks also has advantages in its ability to integrate with the user�s desktop. Not long ago, activating new subscribers on legacy architecture was time consuming and a paper trail nightmare. For IT managers, packet-based services can now be provisioned via an easy-to-use, customizable Web interface that simplifies and expedites network management.

Web integration also allows end users to manage their own features, adding a whole new level of customer service. The days of touchtones have now become point and click. By integrating services with the user�s desktop via a simple Web browser, it is very easy to add subscribers or change service profiles. Self-provisioning allows customers to do things such as sign up for services, configure mailboxes, change find-me follow-me numbers, prepay online, set up conferences, review their monthly statements and bills, and more.

The Future of Enhanced Services
With both core and access networks rapidly realizing the superior economics of packet voice, enhanced service infrastructure is destined to make the same transition, and applications like unified communications will become mainstream. Development efforts have already shifted from legacy systems to next-generation applications as competition fuels greater innovation. The increase in profitability achieved by lower costs and advanced features is so compelling that many carriers are deploying packet voice networks solely for service deployment, before exhausting capacity on existing circuit networks. This allows carriers to migrate slowly, and as the market continues to mature, this motivation will only increase as new applications are commercially deployed and legacy systems are phased out. c

Michael O�Hara is vice president, marketing at Sonus Networks, Inc. Sonus is a provider of voice infrastructure products for the new public network, delivering end-to-end solutions addressing a full range of carrier applications, including trunking, residential access and Centrex, tandem switching, and IP voice termination, as well as enhanced services. For more information, please visit www.sonusnet.com.

[ Return To The July 2003 Table Of Contents ]


Taming Transaction Costs With Presence-Enhanced Convergence


Today�s enterprises are faced with a curious paradox: Transaction costs -- the costs of information exchanges associated with selling goods and services -- have been going up despite investments in automation technologies that are supposed to streamline business. They now consume more than two-thirds of the world�s GDP -- up from 50 percent in 1970 -- and continue to increase faster than the number of transactions. Businesses are like debtors who can�t even keep up with the interest payments, much less make a dent in the principal.

Transactions consist largely of increasingly specialized communications. The number of people involved in day-to-day business decisions is likewise increasing. A team of financial experts, for example, will typically support the CEO. In addition, people can conduct business from anywhere, dropping in on virtual meetings via traditional phones, mobile phones, desktop computers, wireless notebooks, or handheld computers. The advantages of this increased mobility must be balanced against the detriments: Mobility increases transaction costs and makes it more difficult for employees to communicate and collaborate effectively. One example is the disconnect between a mobile salesperson and the back office information he or she needs, such as prices, delivery dates, and the like.

Geographic barriers are melting away, enabling more and more specialization. Consequently, transactions are made up of increasing numbers of communications sessions using a variety of modes. The price for setting up these different types of links is a lot of redundant overhead that raises transaction costs.

The convergence of voice and data onto a single IP network infrastructure has long been touted as a way to eliminate some of these redundancies, but the promise of mere transport-level efficiencies hasn�t been enough to separate most companies from their traditional phone systems. However, the addition of �presence� information to the convergence mix is about to change everything.

The primary enabling technology is SIP, which is now poised for mainstream deployment. SIP adds context and state information about participants and relevant content to the converged voice and data flow, which greatly simplifies the establishment of communications. People can engage in spontaneous, real-time collaboration, and transaction costs are reduced.

Consider the relatively simple example of a conference call. In a traditional communications environment, the organizer of the conference has to reserve time on a conference bridge that is established by a service provider, collect any documents that are to be used during the conference, and e-mail them to the conference participants along with the call-in number and passcode.

The participants have to keep track of the access information and the time, and each individual goes through the same error-prone call-in procedure. Each person also has to gather up relevant documents ahead of time, and scroll through them manually in step with the conference -- even more duplication of effort.

In a SIP-enabled environment, conference bridges can be established on-the-fly by the conference organizer. A buddy list of the desired attendees shows the organizer the presence state and communication mode of each, because this information is automatically sensed and reported by SIP-enabled applications and devices.

The distribution of slides and other illustrations is synchronized with the discussion, and a communication broker mediates and makes sure that the format suits the bandwidth and interface/display capability of each recipient device.

Freed from most of the mechanics of organizing and attending the conference, the participants can concentrate on the content of the meeting. Much of the repetitive overhead of trying to track each individual down and establish a link over the appropriate communication mode is eliminated.

The aggregate time saved by knowledge workers is significant, and they will be more willing to collaborate in the future. Communications are enriched, and businesses can marshal resources in real time. Meetings can be recorded and saved as data, enabling people who weren�t available at the time to �attend� them retroactively.

One-to-one communications are also facilitated by presence-enhanced convergence.

A user who needs help with a particular task can present it to the communications broker, which will respond with a list of qualified people who are currently available. When a specific individual is the target, the communications broker evaluates presence and other context information and lets the caller know in advance which communication mode is best at the moment.

Voice calls are automatically routed to the intended recipient, so there is no need to keep track of different phone numbers for desktop, mobile, and home phones, or to leave duplicate messages in separate voice mail systems. When an individual is not available, the communications broker can present the caller with a list of other resources, such as an alternative party, a relevant document, or the opportunity to schedule an appointment through an automated assistant that can access the target�s calendar.

Convergence also reduces transaction costs on the back end, taking a lot of uncertainty out of communications costs.

Companies today are faced with the mammoth task of managing and tracking all the different mobile devices, collaboration services, conferencing services, and e-mail services, and trying to reconcile their usage against various service-provider bills. Converged communications enable consolidation of accounting, and detailed reporting of who is using what.

In short, presence technology has created an entirely new value proposition for convergence. By consolidating all modes of communication, businesses can move response times into the realm of real time and keep increasingly impatient customers satisfied.

Best of all, the potential return on convergence investments has taken a huge leap, because the fundamental problem of transaction costs is finally being addressed.

Becky Davis is director of product management for Siemens Enterprise Networks, a division of Siemens ICN. Siemens Enterprise Networks was conceived to deliver innovative answers to customers seeking to reduce operating costs and grow revenues. For more information, please visit www.siemensenterprise.com.


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