vgstudio - stock.adobe.com

Evolution of unified comms services

Post-pandemic ways of working are forcing organisations to rethink their comms – we look at the growth in cloud-based services to support hybrid working

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, employees proved they could work effectively and productively from home – and many are planning to continue doing so despite the widespread return to offices.

According to a recent study by CCS Insight, although pandemic restrictions are easing in many regions, employees are determined that remote working will continue to play a vital role. This will have a profound effect on the way IT departments reconfigure telephony, unified communications (UC) services and Wi-Fi networks to support post-pandemic working methods.

The survey of 660 employees in European and US organisations reports that 90% of those who are able to work remotely want to retain the option to do so, with just over a quarter (27%) wanting to work remotely all the time. The appetite for full-time remote working varies slightly by region, at 38% in Germany, 36% in the US and 33% in the UK.

A much higher proportion of respondents, at 62%, favour a hybrid model, whereby they would work from home three days per week.

The need to make hybrid work

Analysts at Gartner forecast that the number of remote workers will have doubled to over two-thirds of digital workers by 2023, shifting buyer requirements towards work-from-anywhere capabilities.

The nature of remote and hybrid working means people are continuing to hold meetings online, even with the easing of pandemic restrictions and offices reopening. According to CCS Insight, this continued reliance on virtual meetings is triggering disruption across the employee productivity technology market.

Its survey found that use of the two leading platforms – Microsoft Teams and Zoom – jumped by over 50% in 2021, with the products being used by 47% and 41% of employees respectively. This is having a dramatic impact on the use of traditional voice technologies in organisations, with phone calls down 20% compared with pre-pandemic levels.

This is not just about using video conferencing, says CCS Insight principal analyst Angela Ashenden. The lines between the different forms of work-related communications are blurring, with “a shift from voice to telephony apps”, she adds.

CCS Insight’s research found that almost a quarter of employees expect their use of desk phones to further decrease over the next 12 months, with voice-only and video calls on meeting apps expected to grow strongly.

Popular apps combine enterprise messaging, telephony and video conferencing as cloud-based UC services with relatively straightforward subscription plans. In fact, the unified communications as a service (UCaaS) market has reached a point of maturity where the services available are superior to on-premise systems.

Gartner’s Magic Quadrant for UCaaS report, published in October 2021, identifies Cisco, Microsoft, Zoom, 8x8 and RingCentral as market leaders.

According to the report, for Gartner clients that subscribe to Microsoft 365, messaging is almost always awarded to Microsoft. In the most challenging telephony environments, however, such as hospitals, manufacturing, field services and retail, its clients select providers with the most extensive capabilities and a longer track record, such as RingCentral, Cisco and 8x8.

However, while senior IT leaders understand infrastructure spending and will err towards economies of scale to reduce communications costs, CCS Insight’s Ashenden says employees prefer to use the tools they are accustomed to, which means they may organise and host conference calls on their favourite video conferencing app, even though the organisation may have a company-wide contract with another provider.

Market leaders in UCaaS

Microsoft

With 80 million monthly telephony users, Microsoft Teams has experienced the largest UCaaS adoption rate among the top providers.

Gartner’s Magic Quadrant for UCaaS highlights Microsoft’s expansion of Calling Plans from 11 to 28 countries, along with its introduction of an Operator Connect programme and a Voice-Enabled Channels feature, which Gartner says offers lightweight call centre-like capabilities.

Teams also offers location-based routing and live captions for calls. There are 1,000+ apps available in the Teams App store.

Implications of deploying UCaaS on Wi-Fi

A knock-on effect of the switch to online meetings is the added strain on office networking, which may not be up to the job, especially when users connect via Wi-Fi on their laptop or mobile device. Analyst firm CCS Insight found that 37% of the people it surveyed were concerned about network speeds.

One of the challenges in configuring a Wi-Fi network for the office is that every device “hears differently”, says Dan Jones, wireless engineer at Natilik and host of the Wireless Pubcast.

“If something’s working really well on a laptop, that doesn’t mean it’s going to work really well on a tablet or a phone or whatever,” he says, pointing out that there will even be differences between different Android devices.

Jones says the main issue is that Wi-Fi chipsets found in devices differ significantly and their firmware runs algorithms that optimise Wi-Fi communications differently.

Apple’s approach is well-documented, according to Jones, but other device manufacturers seem to be less open about how their chipsets optimise Wi-Fi. This means that, unlike with PCs and Android devices, a Wi-Fi engineer can understand the trade-off of optimising a Wi-Fi network for macOS-based hardware over one that favours iOS devices.

Wi-Fi tends to be optimised for the widest coverage area, meaning more power. But this is inefficient in an office environment, where a laptop only needs enough Wi-Fi range to connect to the nearest access point (AP), otherwise it continually jumps between APs, leading to intermittent connectivity. Thus, lower powered Wi-Fi connectivity using APs positioned close to groups of users means each user’s laptop only connects to the nearest AP, leading to a far more stable Wi-Fi connection.

Another challenge for network specialists is that Wi-Fi is a shared medium, which means it has poor latency, particularly when used for streaming and real-time applications such as video conferencing. Unlike Wi-Fi, the cell tower in a mobile network understands how many phones are connected and the type of data those devices want to send.

“The cell tower can say to each device, ‘Right, you can talk, you can talk, you can talk’. It can send out a schedule of who gets to talk when and what bits of the radio spectrum they can use.”

Such scheduling will be available thanks to orthogonal frequency division multiple access (OFDMA), providing concurrent AP communications in Wi-F 6, says Jones, as more devices are 6GHz-enabled.

Zoom

Regarding enhancements to Zoom, Gartner says the company has introduced Power Pack, a desktop experience for reception console users, and an enhanced dashboard for real-time and historic call queue analytics.

It is now offering a hardware-as-a-service option for IP phones in 18 countries, and Zoom United, a bundled phone, meeting and chat offering for less complexity and commercial effectiveness. It also offers the Phone Appliance, which allows a Zoom app experience for desk phones.

In July 2021, Zoom put in a $14.9bn bid to acquire contact centre-as-a-service (CCaaS) provider Five9. But the two companies failed to reach an agreement and the acquisition was abandoned in September 2021.

Cisco

Gartner notes that Cisco has expanded the telephony feature set in its Webex service to support large organisations. Telephony is now available in 85 countries in 21 languages and Cisco now offers an e-commerce site for web-based purchasing.

Like many of the products featured in the Gartner report, Webex uses AI-based noise removal, which offers hybrid workers a better conferencing experience.

RingCentral

While it is known for its telephony service, RingCentral has been expanding into the online video conferencing market.

Gartner points out that the company has formed strategic partnerships with Verizon and Vodafone, made e-commerce investments for direct sales, and put “a massive investment in RingCentral Video meetings”, adding virtual backgrounds and closed captioning.

Other changes listed in the Gartner report include redesigned mobile and desktop clients to keep pace with rival offerings, and expanded developer support via RingCentral Engage application programming interfaces (APIs).

Deeper comms integration

UCaaS is often discussed alongside communications platforms as a service (CPaaS), where services are more tailored to organisations wishing to develop functionality that fits closely with internal enterprise systems. CPaaS is generally seen as a way to help organisations develop and improve their end-to-end customer experience.

A study from Forrester, commissioned by Vonage, reported in October 2021 that seven in 10 firms feel they are able to provide information to customers when, where and how they want it. The online survey of 1,037 global customer and digital experience decision-makers and influencers found that 98% of CPaaS users are “very” or “extremely” effective at getting their customers the information they need, compared with just 37% of organisations that don’t use a CPaaS.

According to Gartner, a capability that has seen increasing market demand is the integration of universal communications capabilities with business applications that make workflows more efficient. For instance, 8x8, one of the leaders in Gartner’s Magic Quadrant for UCaaS, develops software for the entire UCaaS and CCaaS stack.

There is clearly plenty of choice when it comes to selecting a unified communications service. The majority of products provide off-the-shelf video conferencing, telephony and messaging. Businesses looking to streamline workflows may need to consider how these systems integrate with their customer experience platform, customer relationship management (CRM) and other enterprise systems.

What is clear from the industry experts Computer Weekly has spoken to is that these systems need to be able to support hybrid working patterns and hence office wireless networks require a rethink.

Read more about unified communications as a service (UCaaS)

  • As companies face the prospect of a hybrid work model, making a full UCaaS migration might make sense, but it’s important to think about what you’ll need, rather than what you have.
  • A savvy UCaaS deployment can help companies solve some of the tough challenges associated with keeping employees engaged in a world where they can work from anywhere.

Read more on Collaboration software and productivity software

SearchCIO
SearchSecurity
SearchNetworking
SearchDataCenter
SearchDataManagement
Close