Mobile operators to gain little from the UC revolution

The number of enterprise wireless unified communications (UC) connections will skyrocket by 2014, but few mobile operators are in a position to compete to UC-enable mobile devices, research firm Ovum has stated.

The market for UC is expected to grow significantly in the next five years. Even in the midst of the economic downturn, Ovum estimates over 16 million enterprise-owned mobile devices will be connected to UC platforms by 2014.

Fixed telecoms operators, IT services providers, UC technology vendors and specialists are all jostling to take a share. In the midst of this, Ovum has identified a significant opportunity for mobile network operators (MNOs) to influence and profit from UC.

Ovum interviewed a number of global wireless operators and UC platform providers. While many operators were aware of the opportunity UC provided, most were holding back from launching services in a market which is poised for dramatic growth. Based on feedback from enterprises large and small, Ovum has identified a gap in service provision which should be filled by mobile operators.

Evan Kirchheimer, principal analyst, commented: “Connecting enterprise mobile devices to a UC platform may be undertaken by enterprise IP telephony vendors, by large SIs, local IT-oriented VARs, device manufacturers, or by small independent middleware vendors which enable fixed-mobile convergence.

“With such a varied array of players, Ovum has found that MNOs are not in the driving seat when it comes to mobile UC market development. There have been some early UC service launches, but for the most part many operators have held back,” added Kirchheimer.

Kirchheimer said the key for hesitant mobile operators is to focus on SMEs. MNOs have a natural advantage in their strong relationships with SMEs. In contrast, larger businesses most often have complex and varied fixed PBX estates, and PBX vendors and large SIs will be in a more natural position to extend UC functionality to mobile devices via the PBX than will MNOs.

SMEs will not benefit from such high-end attention, and will be attracted to simpler solution bundles on simple terms. Several operators indicated that they plan to base their UC solutions for SMEs on mobile centrex services, thereby eventually aiming to fully displace fixed handsets with mobile devices in many smaller businesses.

However, continued Kirchheimer: “Centrex-based solutions will not appeal to all, especially larger enterprises with significant fixed investments. To attack this base of prospects, mobile operators should develop partnerships with some of those very firms they may one day compete against IP telephony vendors, local value-added resellers and messaging software vendors.”

The report highlights that mobile providers should not be distracted by the buzz about mobilizing enterprise applications. Ovum’s recent survey of 2000 SME telecoms buyers indicated that most SMEs express much greater interest in core UC features (directory, presence, unified messaging) than in horizontal applications like mobile field force automation or fleet management.

“However, mobile operators do face major challenges in this market. UC is not a connection, but a service”, Kirchheimer added. “A major obstacle for MNOs will be developing tariffs which accommodate device independent employee behaviour, application management, and flat rate bundled voice and data. The transition to UC will have significant implications for billing systems and internal cost allocations. Building a service infrastructure will be essential for MNOs, as they offer and support SLAs that involve elements in which typical operators will not have any expertise.”

Kirchheimer continued: “If mobile operators craft the right strategies and execute well, then UC could be the first application which enables them to provide more than just voice minutes, email and SMS to a large number of enterprises, and in particular, to small businesses.”

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