Make the right moves

How can converged networks fit into to your mobile business strategy? Sally Flood finds that convergence might be the key to...

How can converged networks fit into to your mobile business strategy? Sally Flood finds that convergence might be the key to making mobility happen effectively in your company, making sure that you can actually realise the ambitions that you had

The Holy Grail of the IT industry is a single device that provides your workers with the ability to instantly connect to information and services no matter where they are. The good news is that convergence might just be the key.

Convergence gives your business the ability to deliver voice and data to employees over a single network to any IP-compatible device, says Tim Nelson, marketing manager at BT Business. "It doesn't matter whether you're connecting via a PC and IP telephone in the office, or through a laptop and WiFi hotspot at the airport," he says.

One of the most common ways to integrate mobility and convergence is by connecting remote and home workers to the converged network using an IP VPN (virtual private network). "Convergence makes home working a reality for many companies for the first time, and removes the need for workers to be in the office," says Colin Curtis, research and development manager with Xpert Communications, a telecoms provider. "Given that the average home worker is 20% more productive than an office worker, that's quite an incentive."

For workers on the move who don't have access to a DSL connection in a home office, it's possible to connect to a converged network over WiFi. The protocol does now offer multimedia standards for combined voice, data and video applications and it is possible to deliver quality of service (QoS) over WiFi. "In practice, it's just a case of plugging in a phone headset to your laptop's USB port and putting some software onto the mobile device," he says. "It's straightforward and the cost savings can be staggering."

Nelson cites the example of a colleague who was travelling in the US. He paid his hotel $35 for a week's high-speed internet access which let him connect to the corporate converged network and access all his voice and data applications. When he arrived at the airport to fly home, he needed to make a single business call from a payphone, which cost another $35. "With the WiFi access, voice calls were effectively free because they ran over the company's data network," says Nelson.

At one firm in the telecoms arena, some 70% of employees regularly work away from the office. In the past, these workers would connect to the corporate network using ISDN, dial-up access or through special arrangements with local PTTs. Today, they can connect to an IP VPN which links securely to Nortel's converged network, says Simon Wilson, Nortel's enterprise data product marketing manager.

"WiFi and DSL are cheaper and widely available for most of our employees," says Wilson. "At the moment, it's mostly used to access email and voicemail, but in future I can see it being used for all sorts of applications."

At present, voice over WiFi is restricted by a lack of handsets, says Mark Blowers, a senior analyst with UK research firm Butler Group. "In order to be truly useful a voice device has to offer more than one technology, but WiFi is still pretty restricted outside the enterprise." There are signs that this is changing - most notably the BT Bluephone, which combines a mobile and landline phone.

Mobile workers will feel the benefits of convergence as it develops, says Blowers. At present, convergence is used as a shorthand for voice and data convergence; in five years' time, the term will cover all sorts of multimedia applications. "Because convergence is relatively new, there aren't many applications designed for mobile workers to use over a converged network," Blowers says, "but as that changes, you'll start to see things like video conferencing or location applications, which tell you where the person you are calling is at any given time."

Intelligent devices

It isn't just the arrival of new applications that will allow mobile workers to take advantage of converged networks. The industry is also working on devices that will support multiple connectivity systems, allowing users to access information wherever they happen to be. "At the moment, you have Bluetooth devices, cellular devices and WiFi devices, but that will change very soon," says Blowers. "The industry is rapidly moving towards intelligent devices that can select the best way to connect depending on the user's location."

For example, a device might select Bluetooth for low-throughput communication between devices at close range, but switch to WiFi for higher bandwidth email access from the corporate network. As you move away from the hotspot, the device could move to a GPRS connection.

This scenario should be strengthened by the increased adoption of 3G, says Chris Knowles, a practice leader with Computacenter. "The industry isn't clear about what 3G is going to be used for, but the logical idea is that it will provide connectivity when people are on the move, or when they're in a rural area out of reach of WiFi hotspots," he says.

Once these devices are widely available, mobility will be a key driver of convergence, adds Knowles. "If you can put VoIP over wireless, whether that's WiFi, 3G or GPRS, you're going to see huge savings," he says. "Not just because of productivity gains, but because I no longer need a desk phone. I have one device with a soft phone installed on it, which goes everywhere with me."

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