Is O2 Unify winning customers over?

We talk to Paul Osborne, managing director of O2 Unify, to see if the company’s partnership with 2e2 has enticed customers to get their communications services from the 18-month-old firm

O2 is synonymous with mobile, be it as the lucky operator who secured the iPhone exclusive when Apple’s handset came to our shores or as the quiet network which was not angry but ‘disappointed’ with Ofcom’s recent 4G rulings.

However, the company does not just focus on mobile and since 2010 has been trying its hand as a systems integrator with partner 2e2 in an attempt to become a one-stop shop for enterprise telecoms.

Paul Osborne has been managing director of the business, which it called O2 Unify, since its inception and claimed the idea was to move into the “joined-up” business market.

“O2 had already moved from doing purely mobile to offering fixed services as well, but the idea was to move into IT and communications overall,” he tells Computer Weekly. “We announced a joint venture with 2e2 to bring the best of telco and systems integration together for customers, but the tie-up also brought the powerful global scale and buying power of O2 to 2e2 and the technical nous of the systems integrator to us.”

The two firms had been working together for almost nine years on a number of projects, which Osborne says led to “culturally very well-aligned people” in the workforce.  

“It is a partnership that is very dependent on each other and I think that is the best way.”

The first focus for the joint venture was on what Osborne terms “the bottom end of the IT stack,” focusing on wide area networks (WANs), layering IP solutions over and starting to integrate fixed and mobile solutions.

“We tried to take an agnostic route when it came to suppliers and be customer-led,” he says.

“Suppliers all have different strengths and some are better than others at going down the commercial route, despite not necessarily having the best technology. If a customer has a lot of Avaya installed, to take them down the Cisco route would have to show huge cost savings and improvements, and the time of product differentiation is very short in this market.”

In the end, the majority of the deployments by O2 Unify used equipment from Avaya and Cisco, or used Microsoft Lync software.

“Then we moved more towards flexible working offerings and with the growth of cloud services. Having the system integrator datacentre on hand, we could offer utility billing and other products and reduce the number of suppliers customers have to take telecoms from.”

Osborne is proud of the customer numbers – set to reach a total of 40 by the end of the month – and contracts worth £150m rolling in.

“I can’t say if that was the exact expectation but it was there or thereabouts and we think that is great, especially in the current economic climate,” he adds.

One of its more recent customers is Civica, the public sector outsourcing firm, which has used O2 Unify to deliver its own unified communications system, including desktop-to-desktop video conferencing. However, one customer it has signed up is a lot more high profile at the moment.

“We also provide WAN to all of G4S,” says Osborne. “They are going through difficult times right now in a very public way and they need to be able to rely on their support chain more than ever. We have to be there to support them in both the good times and bad.”

But the biggest growth area in the business is down to the burgeoning popularity of flexible working.  

“The last six months there has been a sea change where flexible working, bring-your-own-device (BYOD) or whatever the latest marketing term is for it is now, has become very prevalent,” he said. “Because of these ideas, there has been a significant trend towards customers asking for tablet solutions, VPNs, Wi-Fi layered with security etc.”

The green agenda is still front and centre

Paul Osborne, managing director, O2 Unify

Osborne believes the Olympics really made people think about where they work from and how they work, regardless of the reality of the traffic and public transport situation, which provided a change in attitude. However, he believed there were three overall agendas driving flexible working forward.

“The green agenda is still front and centre,” he said. “Employees driving around the UK or travelling further afield is not a good use of resources.”

“But it isn’t just the moral agenda, as there are two commercial aspects as well. IT directors are challenged with reducing the costs of keeping the lights on and at the same time taking these money savings and innovating with technologies to make more efficiencies. Managing these duel agendas is tough but with flexible working, people are able to have much smaller commercial properties, spend less on managing IT estates and save on smarter devices.”

So over the past 18 months, O2 Unify has managed to establish itself in the areas of mobile and fixed convergence and flexible working, but when asked what the future held for the business, whether it was looking to incorporate new products or focus on its current portfolio, Osborne says the exact question was a “live debate” happening right now within the organisation.

“We say it is about joining up people,” he adds. “There will definitely be more of a move in and around cloud. There is real mileage, as many providers have said, to have hosted applications for mobility and utility billing from one platform. We are in a good position now to talk to our customers about it.”

But why would businesses that associate the O2 branding with mobile look to O2 Unify for these larger scale projects?

“That is one of the challenges I have struggled with since launch, convincing customers that as a mobile provider we are suitable for much more,” says Osborne, “but things are changing.”

“When we launched the business, we asked O2 enterprise customers (between 300 and 400 businesses) whether they would consider O2 as an ITC provider. At that time only 8% said yes. Over the past year we have done a massive marketing drive with workshops, blue door events bringing in external speakers and made in-roads into this business.”

“The last survey, conducted a year after the first, showed 37% would consider us.”

Osborne believes the company has the ability to drive down costs while also offering a strong introduction into BYOD, thanks to its mobile division. But the next year will be key to see if customers want to get their joined-up offerings from the O2/2e2 partnership.  

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