We all know there is a communications revolution going on. You can't turn on the TV or open a newspaper or magazine without seeing an advert for 3G mobile phones or ever-cheaper broadband internet access. But so far, it seems, consumers have been far more ready to snap up the new ideas cooked up by communications companies than their big-business counterparts.
Teenagers, first to catch on with texting, now download ringtones, music and even videos on to their mobiles. And in one of the most significant developments of all, more than 70 million people worldwide - the vast majority of them private rather than business users - have signed up for the Skype service, which offers virtually free telephone calls between computer users.
The technology behind this revolutionary service is known as Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), which uses the internet rather than the traditional phone lines to carry voice traffic. Such has been Skype's instant and massive success that eBay paid a whopping £1.4 billion for the firm last year, less than 18 months after it launched in the UK.
Others are also keen to exploit the potential of the internet to deliver video and TV services, as well as cheap phone calls. That's why Richard Branson, the nation's favourite entrepreneur, is so keen to tie up Virgin Mobile with cable TV and internet provider NTL. The deal would offer consumers so-called quadruple play services, combining data, voice, video and mobile communications all in one hi-tech bundle.
Look too, for example, at BT's recently launched Fusion package, which allows you to carry a single handset for mobile and fixed-line calls. When you are out and about, it uses your mobile line, but when you return home, the handset detects your home broadband connection and automatically switches to almost-free VoIP calling rather than the more expensive cellular option. Again, this is aimed squarely at the home user.
By comparison, British business has been relatively slow to seize on these new developments. VoIP has yet to make much of an impression outside a few large corporates, for which the advantages of free calls between multiple offices scattered across the globe are obvious. Says Dave Yip, an analyst with Xantus Consulting: 'All enterprises have a voice system in place. This has usually been developed and maintained over a number of years. It is likely that such systems are nearing full depreciation and are operating sufficiently well and giving little cause for concern.'
In other words, if traditional phone systems work well and involve little or no capital expenditure, why change them? Moving to a VoIP system, where you run voice and data traffic over the same set of cables, can seem like asking for unnecessary pain and expense. Doesn't the senior management have more important fires to fight?
Well, things may be starting to change, as more businesses begin to realise the benefits offered by this new technology. Often, the move to VoIP comes about as a result of companies transferring to new buildings and having the opportunity to rethink their communications. One such is the UK facilities management company Amey Group, which installed a Cisco-based VoIP system at its new HQ on a greenfield site in Oxford.
'We would not have been able to make the business case otherwise,' says Peter Garratt, the company's IT director. 'Our PBXs (traditional office phone exchanges) were only 18 months to three years old.'
But he is pleased with the results. The staff have readily accepted the new IP phones; the new technology provides a universal voicemail system and makes hot-desking far easier to manage, he says.
It also enables him to set up new branch offices quickly. 'We now have a dozen offices ranging from 10 to 50 users, all using the IP phones. It is much quicker to deploy new offices and cheaper to implement the physical infrastructure.'
The new HQ set-up was 30% cheaper than a conventional PBX, and the investment at existing offices has not been lost: Siemens has put in bridging technology that allows the old PBXs to operate in conjunction with the Cisco system. This makes possible a graceful move to all-VoIP operation over time - important, because the full benefits of almost-free calls are realised only when both parties are using VoIP.
But as everyone in the industry emphasises, moving to VoIP is just the starting point. The holy grail is full convergence - the convergence of data, video and voice traffic on a single network, the convergence of fixed and mobile networks, local and wide-area, and also public and private communications. Ultimately, this means not only much reduced infrastructure and maintenance costs, but much improved integration and functionality between systems.
VoIP is the starting point for this goal because it converges two of those systems - voice and data. It means lower costs because of fewer cables to maintain, and only one system to manage instead of two. But, according to Rajesh Sinha, technical director at system integrator Bailey Teswaine, there is a lot more to it. 'With the IP handset, you can see who is present to take a call, who is in a meeting, or on a call to a client. If you have a client on the phone and you need to get information from an expert, it can save a lot of time if, rather than making a call or sending an e-mail to someone who is not there, you can get in touch with the next-best person.'
Despite its slow take-up, VoIP has now matured to a state of resilience where questions over security (see panel, right) and quality of service have largely been tackled. The same cannot be said of some of the other components of full convergence, especially when it comes to wireless networking.
The combination of converged systems and a wireless office network is the theoretical ideal, offering as it does almost complete freedom from the cost and complexity of cable installations, and is the last word in flexibility for users. But that freedom tends to disappear once you leave the office, unless you subscribe to an expensive 3G mobile service or seek out the nearest wireless hotspot in a cafe or bar.
One of the most promising new technologies, WiMAX, is a long-range wireless net- working technology intended to address this limitation, providing seamless mobile broadband access wherever you go. Or, at least, wherever you go within range of a WiMAX station - probably citywide or better. This would be just like international roaming on your mobile phone, but with the equivalent of a broadband access point always to hand.
WiMAX promises to let you work anywhere, as if you were still in the office. Your laptop will be able to access the company's local area network and your office phone number will ring your VoIP phone handset wherever you are. There's only one snag: the underlying technical standards to support it are still being hammered out at international level and may not be resolved until well into this year.
Meanwhile, the 3G operators that paid so dearly for their licences five years ago still need to get a return on their huge investment. Caroline Gabriel, research director of telecoms consultancy Rethink, predicts that they will bring down prices to make their services more affordable before WiMAX (which is cheaper to set up) comes in some time over the next two years.
On WiMAX, her advice is 'don't plan around it for the moment', which means that most companies will end up relying on a rather piecemeal mix of 3G and WiFi hotspots for the immediate future.
Another emerging idea, exemplified by the BT Fusion product, may also help keep down costs by converging the fixed and mobile world. The twinning concept gives customers a single handset that can switch seamlessly between a cellular and a fixed connection, depending on where they are.
Explains Campbell Williams of switch-maker Mitel: 'Sixty-four per cent of business mobile calls are made at home or in a building - that is a huge unnecessary expense. I have one handset. If you call my extension, it also calls my mobile. If I answer the call on my mobile, it drops the call on my desk and vice versa.'
Similarly, if he is on a mobile call at any of his offices, he can, by means of the hot-desking capacity afforded by IP telephony, sit at a spare desk, log in with his extension number and PIN, and pick up the current call on that fixed-line phone.
The missing part of the convergence picture so far is video, often ignored in the past because digital networks have not been fast enough to handle it. But bandwidth is getting cheaper all the time, and with a fat enough pipe, the same network that carries data and voice can be made to handle training videos, messages from senior management, even the CCTV security camera traffic. Desktop videoconferencing may even be possible, although this tends to be very heavy on bandwidth if several people are involved.
Most of these applications are already available using a mix of existing technologies. The attraction of convergence is that by running the applications all over a single network, you simplify the underlying infrastructure and dramatically lower running and maintenance costs.
The major disadvantage to all this is the age-old risk of putting all of your eggs in one basket. With traditional discrete systems, you can still use the phones if the internet or LAN goes down (and vice versa), but with one uber-network handling everything, significant downtime could quickly become a business-critical issue.
Suppliers say they have the problem licked, but it's probably worth making sure you have back-up power supplies and plans in place to survive if the network does break.
The Internet Protocol is often described as the glue that enables convergence to take place. It is a standard format for any digital traffic travelling over the internet, allowing data, sound, pictures and video to share the same cables.
Thirty years ago, an international telephone call was expensive because the carriers had to set up a direct circuit between you and the person you were calling. A length of cable - perhaps thousands of miles long - was dedicated to your one conversation. In the digital world, data is chopped up into packets and sent down the line, like cars on a motorway. Once the packets reach their destination, they are reassembled and, in the case of VoIP, converted back into sound. Thus, multiple conversations, data transactions, pictures or whatever can share the same physical route.
As well as being cheaper to supply, VoIP opens up a range of services. Staff moves, hot-desking, remote working and home working can all be enabled very quickly. Conferencing, call diverting and call grouping are all much easier to manage than with traditional PBX systems. Systems can also be integrated into other computer applications, including Microsoft Outlook, customer relationship management and enterprise systems, such as SAP.
But VoIP will usually require an upgrade to both local and wide area networks, as quality of service becomes a vital element. Voice traffic has to take precedence over e-mail, for instance, which is less affected by delay. The other concern is over its security. A study by the Information Security Forum (ISF), a body representing 270 of the world's biggest corporations, uncovered real fears that voice traffic could be hit by hackers and criminals. Among the fears was ID spoofing and voice modification software that would allow intruders to pose as someone else. And with phone calls virtually free, ISF members foresee telephonic spamming becoming a threat.
Major players in the VoIP area include traditional telephony vendors such as Siemens, Nortel and Avaya, while Cisco, which began developing its all-IP communications products in 1997, is now reckoned to be the world leader in this field, having recently shipped its four-millionth IP phone.
THE ROLE OF WIRELESS
Ideally, we'd all like to be able to roam the world and have instant access to people and systems in our organisation, at the cheapest rate. To make this happen, certain things need to be in place.
First, users need high-speed wireless access to support bandwidth-hungry applications such as voice and video. High Speed Downlink Packet Access (nicknamed 3.5G) is the latest mobile phone connection standard on the horizon, offering speeds of up to 14.4 megabits/second. But most observers say the real-world speed will be a fraction of that - around 800 kilobits/sec, well below the average home broadband connection. And that is only for downloading information. High-speed uploading (sending information from your handset to someone else) is still two to three years away, so we'll have to be content with 50-100 kilobits/sec in the meantime.
Another requirement is for equipment to be able to switch seamlessly from one service or application to another without the need for dialling in again or authenticating yourself. And you might want to switch automatically between your 3G supplier and the nearest WiFi hotspot, and be aware of any change in call tariff. These complex integrated functions are still a long way off.
In the US, some cities have already begun building city-wide WiFi networks to allow citizens to roam and communicate without the need to pop into Starbucks for the privilege. WiFi allows for IP telephony but, according to Rethink's Caroline Gabriel: 'It's still a year off, probably, before it is good enough to satisfy companies.'
She predicts that WiMAX will be the long-term solution. 'It will offer a fully mobile wide-area service with no cut-outs.' But she doesn't see the technology roadmap settling down much before the end of the decade, as countries need to agree on standards and on the allocation of the increasingly scarce radio spectrum.
Meanwhile, mobile operators are reacting by offering cheap mobile calls between employees of the same firm, or flat-rate calls. So for the foreseeable future, companies will make gradual progress, adding speed and flexibility in small steps. But the full multimedia roaming experience will have to wait, in all likelihood, until about 2010.
WHAT'S STOPPING CONVERGENCE? THE BIGGEST OBSTACLES TO ACQUIRING VOICE AND VIDEO OVER IP Cost 34% Reliability 15% Compatibility 9% Availability 8% Manageability 5% SOURCE: Forrester Research Europe