Smart consumers and business users want their networks to work faster and further afield. Carriers and integrators want to do more with less. Converged communications is how it will happen. TALK TO DIFFERENT PEOPLE about convergence and you`ll get different answers. For the home user, convergence is the ability to run multiple communications channels over a single wire, and also the trend for mobile devices to include multiple functions in a single handset.

These two forms are related: the busy home user or business person would like a single device to be able to cater to different needs, whether watching TV, making or taking calls, browsing the Internet, receiving e-mail and storing contacts, and that device needs to work across multiple networks seamlessly. The convergence asked for by the home and business user is changing the way traditional telecoms and cellular service providers are working together.

Jacques du Toit, director of Orion Telecom, says the IT industry is starting to provide clients with voice-enhancing services.

"Service providers will have the ability to use services developed by third parties, combine them, integrate them with services they already have, and provide the user with a completely new service," he says. "On the home front, the most notable form of convergence is the move to triple play, which is the provisioning of three services: high-speed Internet, television and telephone services over a single broadband connection.

"We can also look forward to communities of smart villages, which are designed to provide a high-tech environment that meets all users` technology needs, incorporating both work and recreation. We are already seeing the mass market availability of a growing variety of devices capable of benefiting from home networking, and of wired and wireless broadband. Soon we should also see a massive uptake of online purchasing as people gain access to the Internet like never before."

, CTO of , agrees.

"Take the traditional scenario of sitting in front of the TV and watching a broadcast. That is going to become a thing of the past as technology adoption increases steadily in the home. Now the TV can be used for video conferencing, accessing the Internet, playing music content, watching video or DVD streaming, and gaming. More home automation powered by simple and reliable connectivity is likely, as is increased sharing with neighbours and communities or with people anywhere in the world. One-to-one communication is changing; the predictions made years ago with regard to Internet shopping and the `e` revolution are, in fact, coming true, owing to the power of convergence and the availability of more mature (and easier to use) technology." In the Group`s report Fixed-Mobile Convergence Gives Network Vendors an IMS Opening, authors John S. Mazur and Sylvain Fabre say that individual users who stand to benefit most from convergence - and whom vendors and service providers should, therefore, target - are those who are both consumers and businesspeople.

"These people would embrace a single converged device and service that swept away the present jumble, that could be personalised, and that made them more productive - especially if employers were, as a result, willing to pay for it. And the more progressive employers would be. Apple is an example of a manufacturer keen to make users` experience of technology more enjoyable and well-rounded by devising stylish devices that are easy to use. An example in the field of entertainment is the iPod, which now plays video as well as music and works with both the Mac OS and Windows."


Mobile operators and telcos have been grappling with ways to make this smart business consumer as connected as possible. One of the standards that has been championed is the IP Multimedia Subsystem or IMS, which is an architecture for operators that want to provide both mobile and fixed multimedia services.

”IMS aims to provide all the services provided by the Internet," says . "It also gives network operators and service providers the ability to control and charge for each of those services. In addition, IMS uses open standard IP protocols to enable users to access all these services, whether they are using their regular networks or roaming. The interfaces for service developers are also based on IP protocols. This is why IMS truly merges the Internet with the cellular world; it uses cellular technologies to provide ubiquitous access and Internet technologies to provide appealing services."

Du Toit says it`s also possible to run VOIP applications over the Internet. "IMS promises better quality of service than VOIP, which offers no guarantees at all. With IMS, the ISP can guarantee QoS since they know which service has been requested by the user. IMS also enables the integration of different services so that an operator can use services developed by third parties and develop them into new services. The Internet community will be fast to develop new applications that take advantage of this convergence."

Not everyone agrees that IMS will take over as the standard. Gartner`s and Martin Gutberlet claim it delivers little or no value to most organisations developing innovative networked applications and that "some network operators may even use it to stifle innovation".

In their report IMS Will Not Enable Innovative Services, they say IMS is not needed for most applications, the cost benefit is dubious, performance and service quality are not that important, and that the Internet has ways to deliver IMS features without duplicating them: global naming, sessions, presence and quality of service.

Comments Brauer: "Examining the current market and the use of Session Initiation Protocol will reveal that there is not much use for these technologies. If the world accepts SIP, there will remain a need for hybrid systems to cater for both old and new methods of communications and service delivery. Pure IMS needs to evolve in some way as it is too early for full deployment of such systems.

"Again, peer-to-peer remains the biggest threat for the billing out of services as it simply bypasses the whole `traditional` business model of providing a service and charging for it. If it is used for automated provisioning, IMS offers a cost saving since there is less human intervention required. If it is assumed that IMS will result in direct cost savings, companies will be sorely disappointed; it is a mechanism for tracking and billing services.

"The reality is that the cost of `traditional` voice is coming down dramatically in the face of , and VOIP companies will feel the competition too. A billing platform in this or any environment will not save costs, but rather add to overheads."


In the corporate environment, convergence is all about using fewer networks to get more things done. , MD of Midrand-based KSS Technologies, says the business driver for convergence is, simply, measurable ROI.

"Savings will ultimately be realised from supporting an optimised infrastructure with the flexibility to incorporate mobile and wireless capabilities while realising powerful communications functionality, all components of improved operational efficiencies," he says. "Our vision of convergence is about bringing the required degree of intelligence to the platform itself, to deliver the vision of a broader services infrastructure.

"Organisations today make a number of assumptions about their ICT needs, and among these is that a converged network infrastructure means voice, and primarily voice, is tagged onto the existing IP data network with the objective of bypassing the high cost of toll-based telephony services. While this assumption is fair, it barely touches on an accurate vision of convergence that promises overall operational efficiency and improved business agility."

Maree says the real definition of convergence should be about doing more with less.

"Whether it`s doing more with fewer people or perhaps doing more with some technology and fewer people, it`s ultimately about achieving more with less: less cabling, less complexity, less support, fewer operating systems, fewer contracts and fewer vendors. And I get more integration, more functionality and more flexibility from more applications.

"We made a study of the number of networks a typical company could run in the enterprise and using the term `network` loosely we came up with: the data network, the telephone network, the analogue coaxial video network, the power network, the wireless data network, the DeCT network for cordless phones, the UTP network for the alarm system, a separate UTP network for your time and attendance and access control system, and a separate network for public address. I`m not even counting storage networks. That`s nine or ten networks without trying too hard."

Maree reckons that future companies will be able to trim that down to two networks, perhaps even one as the Power Over Ethernet (PoE) standard finds its way into more devices.

"Convergence will also ensure that organisations can leverage the benefits from , mobility and remote access. It`s no longer about access to data alone, but extending data, voice and video from a central resource, across an IP-based network, to anywhere." But so far the uptake has been slow. "Real acceptance is only just beginning, which I think is quite sad," says Maree. "For various reasons people look at it and say `the price is too high`, because they compare it with a traditional PABX. They look at the cost of purchase rather than the cost of ownership. When you look at the cost over two to three years, the savings are huge.

"There are also soft savings: lower maintenance costs, high levels of productivity, and lower skills costs; you don`t need PABX skills and network skills and Microsoft skills. "There`s better integration and all sorts of new applications you can run on top of IP telephony."


James Guthrie, MD of African Solutions, agrees that initial cost of ownership may go up, and implementation can be costly if it`s not done correctly. "But there are long-term benefits. Businesses will finally have access to one service provider who can manage their voice and data. This will, in turn, lower the cost of managing these services."

The other major limiting factor to converged networks in South Africa is a depressingly familiar refrain.

"Bandwidth is a major issue and will continue to be for some time into the future," says Du Toit. "From the corporate perspective, companies have invested much money in their existing separate infrastructures for voice and data. To persuade them to chuck all of that out and replace these systems with new, cheaper infrastructure is not going to be easy. This scenario is also likely to have a far-reaching impact on IT people in organisations."

Guthrie also points the finger at .

"Very simply, it`s bandwidth. And nothing is being done to address that. Icasa was given new powers in 2005 to force telco providers to supply customers with more cost-effective bandwidth solutions, but nothing has happened. Government policy needs to change. We need to be in line with other developing countries around the world. Instead, we have fallen behind countries like Brazil, India and the Philippines. And the worst part is that we are competing with these countries in the telecoms and outsourced call centre markets. We need a far more liberal IT policy and sector."

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