Unified communication

UC Gets Extra Cloud Kick

Unified Communications is hardly a new space, but the rise of cloud services and worker mobility, combined with the inexorable shift from TDM to IP, is changing this venerable combination of voice, data and video services, and fueling new interest and ongoing growth not just for the VoIP companies that pioneered UC but more traditional telecom operators as well.

AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) this week announced a new cloud-based UC platform, Collaborate, aimed at taking the complexity out of UC for enterprises and SMBs and making it easier to transition from what is a possible hodge-podge of UC deployment to a centrally managed system. On Tuesday, Verizon Enterprise Solutions announced a Unified Customer Experience offering, the third and final major piece to its contact center services built on Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO)'s Hosted Collaboration Solution for Contact Center technology. (See AT&T Launches Cloud-Based Collaborate and Verizon Upgrades Customer Contact Suite.)

Cloud-based technology, as opposed to premises hardware, is key to both the offers, and others being launched this week in Orlando, Fla., home to the annual Enterprise Connect event. And mobility plays a key role as well.

"The [UC] technology has gotten to a point where it is more easily accessible and it's easier to use," notes Scott Velting, executive director, Voice & Collaboration for AT&T. "End users are starting to interface with clients they can understand -- the iPhone and Android have revolutionized how people look at [client] technology.

Frank Ciccone, head of Verizon Enterprise Solution's Global Advanced Communications Practice, says multinational companies have found UC complex and impossible to manage as they try to "mix and match this stuff on their own." In addition, he notes, they wind up buying a package of features, but only using a portion of them, reducing cost-efficiency as well.

A cloud-based approach can be more seamlessly delivered, plus it can be billed on a per-seat basis, and companies can tailor their feature packages and only pay for what they use, he says.

The value proposition for Collaborate, AT&T's cloud-based UC offering, includes the fact it is transport-agnostic, thus available on an over-the-top basis, but if enterprises do select AT&T's access and transport services, "we have the ability to provide them the underlying QoS," Velting says.

The value of the transport-agnostic approach, he notes is that it will allow the service to reach any customer location in the domestic US -- that's the rollout for this year -- with international reach to come later. The other major selling point for AT&T is that using Collaborate doesn't require companies to either give up their current phones, or stop using technology such as Skype for Business with which they may already be comfortable.

"With the breadth of our portfolio, AT&T Collaborate can provide everything they need in the hosted voice and collaboration space, Velting says. "But we have customers out there who may be a major Microsoft shop or a Cisco shop. We can integrate into those customers' environments, so they don't have to give up, say, Skype for Business. If they want to use that for IM and presence, we can easily plug that into the environment."

Track activity in the VoIP sector in our VoIP Systems section of our IP/Ethernet page here on Light Reading.

The service comes in three flavors -- Enhanced Voice, Unified Communications and Contact Center -- and mobile clients are available for each, as is a portal to enable administrative changes. Collaborate is being rolled out on a controlled basis starting in late April with the small to mid-sized business space and then, as processes are solidified, moving first up to the enterprise market and then down market, Velting notes.

Because of where it's launching first, the product will be sold by the direct sales force, and not AT&T's contact centers, which tend to address smaller customers.

Verizon's Unified Customer Experience is the latest improvement on its Customer Contact Solutions product and basically lets contact center agents get a complete look at customers including their preferences, previous purchases and interactions via a number of different channels including social media. Giving businesses the full view of their customers is important, notes Ciccone, as more interactions happen on the move than ever before.

He also touts the value of having the service built into the network, including the wireless network, as a key advantage. The new offering will be available in May and initially targets companies with 300 to 400 contact center seats.

— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading

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