Convergence: Coming together at last?

Businesses are warming to the idea of integrated fixed and mobile communications and the associated cost savings, according to research

Communications convergence is a tricky concept but, whatever it means, users seem to want it, according to a survey carried out for ZDNet.co.uk by research organisation Rhetorik.

The research, released this week, reveals that companies definitely believe that convergence is a good thing, and they even agree, more or less, on what it actually means. So far it seems it's still mostly a plan for the future, though some of the early elements for successful implementation are in place.

In a nutshell, communications have become complex, and convergence is the promise of making them simple. Businesses rely heavily on both voice and data communications, and use both fixed and mobile network services. Staff have desk phones in the office, mobile phones in their pockets, and IP phone services, like Skype, on their laptops. As well as phone calls, they use voicemail, emails and texts, and maybe even IM (instant messaging), blog posts and social networking. And they do all this on PDAs, laptops, desktops and at public internet terminals.

It's all getting a bit much, especially as workers aren't staying in one place and it all has to be mobile. Convergence promises to simplify things, making workers more productive by giving them easier communications and cutting costs by putting services on the same bill. It can also give the flexibility of allowing people to work wherever they are, including at home.

There's a number of technologies to make this happen, but convergence boils down to two major strands, according to Rhetorik: devices that work as both fixed and mobile phones (fixed/mobile convergence), and the ability to get voice and data services on one network, probably with the same device (voice/data convergence).

This begs some questions, of course: which devices, which services and who is providing them? And what technologies are we going to use to converge it all?

To find out what users really expect from convergence, and how far they are towards achieving those goals, the survey looked at people from 371 organisations in the UK, 30 percent of which were large corporations, 13 percent smaller corporations with less than 1,000 people, 29 percent small- or medium-sized businesses with 250 people or less, and 23 percent SOHO (small office, home office) outfits with 10 people or less.

Companies know what they want
"Encouragingly, respondents were quite knowledgeable in this area," says Rick Paskins, managing director of Rhetorik. People had a good grasp of what convergence is all about, with a majority picking up on three definitions of convergence: putting voice and data on the same mobile network, integrating fixed line and mobile services, and getting voice and data on one mobile handset.

However, in general, bigger companies are better informed about what convergence can deliver. Small companies don't have so many dedicated IT people, and quite a high number of SOHO businesses (15 percent) didn't know about convergence at all.

But who's doing it?
Not too many people are doing it in practice, but there's a high proportion using the nuts and bolts — the first level of tools that might lead to convergence, including things such as Wi-Fi networks and data-ready mobile devices. There are also a large number of companies that say they are planning to adopt convergence, and this marries up nicely with predictions of big growth in converged technologies.

Of the two kinds of convergence, fixed/mobile convergence in the office is hardest to achieve. It involves persuading a mobile phone to double up as an office phone, and usually, but not always, that needs a dual-mode handset that can handle both the office Wi-Fi and cellular GSM and 3G networks on the road. It also needs an office phone system that can route phone calls to the mobile over the office Wi-Fi, and that means an IP PBX in practice.

Dual-mode phones are getting more common, but they are still expensive and fiddly to use. So it's no surprise to find less than one-fifth of respondents reported a high degree of fixed/mobile convergence. That figure doesn't vary much by the size of the company but, as you would expect, companies with more mobile workers are more likely to use fixed/mobile convergence.

On the road, mobile convergence of voice and data is an easier prospect. All you have to do to get going on this sort of convergence is to start using mobile email — or, if your IT department is adventurous, access your company's stock or CRM systems from your mobile. By the strict terms of the definition...

...if you have a 3G card in your laptop from the same operator as your phone, you've converged, because you're using voice and data on the same network. Almost a quarter of those surveyed have a high level of voice and data convergence on their mobiles. Only a third don't do it to a significant extent.

It's still early days though. Even in companies where 70 percent of the staff are mobile, only 15 percent of them are using converged mobile data.

The elements are there
Although lots of people aren't yet using converged communications, many of the elements are in place. More than half of the users surveyed have WLANs (though these may not be voice-ready), and IP telephony on the fixed lines in the office. The same sort of numbers use mobile data. You need both of those to start implementing voice over the WLAN — but only around a quarter of respondents have achieved fixed/mobile convergence to some degree.

Despite a lot of publicity, the use of wireless hotspots by staff on the road isn't universal — it's bubbling under, with more than 40 percent of companies using them. Fewer people are using mobile VoIP, though.

Overall, big companies are more likely than smaller ones to adopt all these technologies.

Boom time?
Mobile VoIP and fixed/mobile convergence are due for a big boom, if this sample's future plans are anything to go by. Two-fifths of the enterprises in the survey plan to start using each of these technologies in the next two years and, overall, the user base is predicted to grow by 135 percent.

Fixed-line IP telephony is the most mature of the underlying convergence technologies, and that's reflected in future plans — 70 percent of people will have it in the business by 2009, according to the sample.

Public WLAN hotspots, mobile voice and data, office WLANs and fixed/mobile convergence are all due to be in use by more than half the companies in 2009.

What's the problem? Why not do it?
Users see mobile voice/data convergence and fixed/mobile convergence as ways to cut costs in the long term, but there are short-term costs to get them set up — both need new devices and new applications, and may involve more money spent on mobile contracts.

There are also security and management issues: mobile convergence means complex devices are on the move in staff pockets. They may be carrying data that is at risk, and there are practical issues in keeping software updated on a set of mobile devices and in supporting a user who may be anywhere.

Smaller businesses tend to be paralysed by the choice of devices, technologies and contracts. The range of possibilities is changing so quickly that there's a real danger of bagging a turkey. As a result, some smaller companies are holding off until matters are clarified.

Larger companies feel more confident about picking the right devices, but with knowledge comes awareness — they're also more worried about security and management. Larger organisations also want a more definite business reason for the jump into convergence.

Is it about to happen?
From all this, it seems pretty clear that convergence is just around the corner. But it may not be as simple as that — as our other article makes clear.

User intentions are often optimistic, as people tend to overestimate what they are going to achieve over the next couple of years. Reality can have a way of bringing us up short when we find we've spent the budget elsewhere, or simply don't have time for a project we know we really ought to get round to.

More crucially, users may find out there are more unanswered questions here. If users converge fixed and mobile in their buildings, do they ditch their current fixed provider or their mobile operator? Do they use Wi-Fi or simply use mobile phones indoors?

If they use mobile voice/data convergence, are their core applications up to the job? And will they find they are hooked into new technologies and new kinds of contracts from their operators?

It looks like users know roughly what they are after from convergence and are eager to get started. But they may find out that there are a lot more variations and wrinkles in the actual technologies than they expected.

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