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Unified Communications for the SMB: It�s Finally Here

By Greg Galitzine

October 2006, Volume 9/ Number 10


In our last column in this space, we discussed the latest offering from Covad (News - Alert)� targeted at the truly small business market � those with fewer than 20 employees. The premise was that these small businesses were a ripe market for hosted VoIP services. But that�s not to say that Covad is turning their backs on those small to medium sized businesses (SMB) who might be looking to scale their operations.

Among the applications that SMBs are eager to embrace is Unified Communications, a solution that enables users to see integrated messages in a single inbox, be they voice messages, faxes, e-mail, video mail, etc... Sometimes it seems that unified communications has been the next �big thing� for many years. In fact one of my first assignments when I started in this industry was to cover an announcement regarding unified messaging. The gist of the news was that this groundbreaking technology would change the way we conduct business. That story � the potential of unified communications � has been told time and again for the last decade. But it might just be that unified communications is finally making the move from promise to reality.

While the average infrastructure deployed in an SMB environment may not have been robust enough to support a companywide unified messaging solution back in 1998, today�s networks are much more capable of allowing SMBs to take advantage of the benefits of unified communications.

If the release I worked on all those years ago was a bit premature, it was certainly not for a lack of a compelling business case. The advantages of unified communications are many. IP-based unified communications can go a long way to making a user more efficient. These days, businesses of all sizes are receiving more and more messages, in many forms: voice, fax, e-mail, video mail. Business owners realize that they need a better way to manage all of these message types, so that the company might be more time and cost efficient. Well, imagine a complete presentation of all your messages in a single window, sortable and customizable as you see fit. Now imagine these messages are intimately tied to your business processes, and you begin to see the real benefits of implementing such a solution.

To that end, Covad recently introduced a bundled voice and data service offering for SMBs that combines the Covad ClearEdge Integrated Access solution with Cisco��s Unified CallManager Express. According to Covad�s announcement, �...the customer managed IP Communications service is based on Cisco Unified CallManager Express and is built to scale as a SMB evolves.�

Covad�s ClearEdge Integrated Access service combines voice and data over a high-speed broadband connection. The offering from Covad (formerly known as PBXi) merges separate phone and Internet access services into a single solution that includes local and long-distance calling plus high-speed Internet access, e-mail, and Web hosting. Perhaps most important for many small business owners is the fact that these services are presented on a single bill, simplifying accounting and making it easier for them to keep a handle on their telecom expenses. The solution is being targeted to the broader SMB market, which comprises companies employing from 20�249 employees.

With regard to call quality, Covad�s voice optimized access solution features dynamic bandwidth allocation, which means that voice calls are always prioritized over data traffic, so call quality does not diminish when other resources such as downloads or e-mail requests contend for the available bandwidth.

Cisco�s CallManager Express is an element of that company�s Unified Communications portfolio of products and applications designed to help businesses communicate more effectively.

Covad described several of the main features of the combined offering. Among the key benefits outlined by Covad was the potential for businesses to improve operational efficiency, enhance customer relationships, and control costs by integrating applications such as auto attendant, call logging, caller ID, call monitoring, call forwarding, call pickup, dual-line appearances, hunt groups, and more. Of course the solution enables SMBs to embrace advanced communications capabilities such as video telephony, rich-media conferencing, unified communications, and softphone integration.

The service also allows for the addition of Covad�s Integrated Access Dashboard, a Web-accessible interface that end users can utilize to manage a wide variety of productivity tools, including unified communications. The Dashboard offers a �window on productivity� to customers who wish to see all their messages in a single location. It�s easier than ever for users to view, prioritize, and act upon their messages in an efficient and timely manner. The Dashboard also provides an environment through which users can even treat their voice and fax messages in a manner similar to e-mail, further improving their productivity. Other applications that can be readily launched from within the Dashboard include ad hoc conferencing and instant messaging.

Another key element of the joint Covad/Cisco announcement revolves around the distribution of the solution. Existing VARs and resellers stand to benefit from the arrangement. The agreement will enable Covad dealers (Cisco VARs) to deliver the solution through the Cisco Integrated Services Router program. Covad will maintain and manage the Covad ClearEdge Integrated Access Service, and Covad Dealers (a.k.a. Cisco Specialized VARs) will maintain and manage the Cisco solution.

According to Eric Weiss, chief marketing officer for Covad, the joint solution �...offers Covad and Cisco channel partners the opportunity to earn both up-front margins on Cisco equipment and ongoing commissions from Covad.�

On that front, Covad recently announced a strategic partnership with VGE (Venture Group Enterprises), a full-service sales and marketing agent support organization specializing in telecommunications. The deal allows VGE�s multi-tiered network of distribution partners to sell Covad�s Voice over IP and broadband solutions � including the Covad ClearEdge/Cisco CallManager Express bundle � to installed CallManager customers.

Pursuant to the agreement, Covad will work with VGE as a strategic partner to help phone vendors, VARs, and integrators utilize VGE�s resources to sell Covad services. Such agents may choose to sell to end customers directly or refer potential customers to VGE�s direct sales personnel. In addition, VGE offers master agents, Web marketing agents, and other companies marketing telecommunications services an easy to use automated Web-based platform to quote, provision, review order status, and reconcile commissions.

At the end of the day, the Covad/Cisco agreement is all about bringing value to the SMB. The joint offering will allow SMBs to gain access to a series of applications that cannot be achieved through a pure hosted solution. Those businesses with multiple sites will also see benefits from Covad�s �On-Net� calling without the need to build out a dedicated voice infrastructure. As mentioned before, the benefits of deploying unified communications, especially via a Dashboard environment, will increase worker productivity.

Covad has always been very good at serving the small and medium businesses through their numerous IP communications solutions targeted at this market. Now, through this partnership with Cisco, they have further enhanced their offering, and yet they have not forgotten their distribution partners. It appears to me that the promise of unified communications is no longer the �next� big thing; through the efforts of solutions providers such as Covad and Cisco, it looks like unified communications has finally arrived. IT

Greg Galitzine is Group Editorial Director for TMC�s IP Communications group of publications, including Internet Telephony, IMS, and SIP magazines.

Covad and the Covad logo are registered trademarks of Covad Communications Group, Inc.

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