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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Multi-operator services - eg Mobile PBXs

I was at an event yesterday, run by Aepona, speaking about service-layer architectures and business models for mobile operators - IMS, SDPs, capability exposure, web services and so on.

Part of the discussion related to hosted and managed mobility services for business customers, and there was some talk about the long-heralded mobile PBX concept. Bin your PBX and deskphones, give all your employees a single mobile number/device, and host everything in the operator's network, get shortcodes & cheap calls between employees.....

Hmmm. I've been a skeptic of this concept for ages, on numerous grounds - the fact that not all employees are mobile, how do you integrate call centres, how do you integrate with legacy PBXs or non-hosted IT systems like CRM and ERP, how do you migrate over time, how do you deal with multiple geographies, what's the channel.... and so on. Put simply, my view is that it's OK for an 11-person software firm in Helsinki, but it won't fly with large enterprises except possibly for small isolated teams of sales or field-service personnel.

But the event yesterday catalysed my thoughts about another issue. At the moment, there are very few network-resident services that can easily work across multiple operators simultaneously. If you're in procurement for a large enterprise, you almost certainly won't want to lock yourself into a 5-year contract with a single mobile operator. You'll want to dual-source. You'll want to be able to churn. You'll want to be able to have a group of employees with another operator if they get an exclusive & desirable device (eg your CEO wants an iPhone.....).

Yet most of the services like Mobile PBX assume that one operator wins the entire account. This is unrealistic, I think.

So what would be the architecture that would enable a big firm to say "Yes, I want all my staff on mobiles, and a hosted mobile PBX service? But I want to pick & choose between Vodafone, T-Mobile and Orange for any given employee, with the option to have CDMA operators for staff in the US and Japan as well".

Tricky. But necessary.


Anonymous said...

Another tricky point is to provide good cellular coverage to an inside cubicle on the 40th floor of a corporate highrise. Are these operators going to bundle a pico cell solution with this service as well? I share your scepticism; this concept is not going to fly in the short term.

Mo said...

Given the state of mobile coverage and friends at the moment, it's even more complex. Services need to either be location-aware or very very good at doing fallback, and they need to be capable of switching to the PSTN or even (internal) VoIP networks to succeed.

Take a major corporation like Dell, for example. The whole internal phone system the world over runs on IP. Sure, you can do clever tricks with VoIP (some very clever tricks in fact), but unless the Mobile PBX solutions can integrate with VoIP platforms such as those deployed by Dell, they'll fall flat as soon as they're pitched at a large entity.

Moreover, the flexibility comes at a price. Dell didn't install a globe-spanning VoIP system to be hip and cool, they did it—primarily—to save a boatload of cash, and mobile services have never ever been good at competing on price—except perhaps with each other.

So yes, these solutions need to be operator-agnostic, but they also need to be platform agnostic, or else they won't ever get further than the 12-man team in Helsinki. People have been talking about single-number services for decades, but they always require you to sell your soul to the devil, and that's why nobody's ever taken them up on it, especially when the alternatives (e.g., smart VoIP routing) are so compelling.

Anonymous said...

"Tricky. But necessary."

necessary to give the CEO a iPhone?

You are right on the mobile PBX: it has taken off for a reason.
But how many MNCs want dual sourcing? Under what circumstances is getting the same service from two suppliers cost effective? or easy to manage? get real.

Dean Bubley said...

No, it hasn't taken off, especially outside Scandinavia.

Nor will it, at least in its current form.

There are many reasons why multiple mobile operators will be necessary for a given large company, even where they could sign a deal with a single fixed-line supplier.
- limited geographic reach
- limited coverage for certain sites
- willingness of carriers to install good in-building solutions
- desire to churn certain users as pricing evolves
- risk management
- exclusivity of certain devices (not just iPhones, also many of the PDAs and 3G-embedded laptops).
- existing long-term contracts
- specific applications for groups of users only available from a specific carrier

... and so on.

Plus an Mobile PBX solution for a large company needs to integrate well with legacy PBXs and new IP-PBXs at both infrastructure and application levels.

Bottom line: Mobile PBX is a niche of a niche.