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Giving voice to the mobile workforce

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When your seven year old daughter asks: "Why is Grandma's phone attached to a piece of wire? Is so she doesn't lose it?", it draws your attention to the to the fact that there is a whole generation who won't need to make the transition from wired to wireless - wireless is all they will ever have known.

Cellular communications are playing a key role in reinforcing the wireless mindset. The mass adoption of mobile phones amongst European teenagers and young adults is pretty obvious. Ed Vonk, CEO of the EVUA, an industry association made up of some of Europe's largest multinationals, also points to the increasing role of cellular phones in the domestic context. As he says: "In some countries, many young people setting up their first home don't even bother with a fixed phone at all."

With trends like this taking place in our personal lives, it begs the question of whether our working lives will go in the same direction. It was for this reason that the EVUA, along with co-sponsor Ericsson, commissioned Quocirca to interview 150 corporate IT and telecoms managers on how communication services are provided to increasingly mobile workforces.

We found, not surprisingly, that the majority of mobile workers now have a mobile phone that is paid for by the business. We also found, however, that over 95 per cent of corporate mobile phone users also have a fixed phone on their desk. When asked why this was, two reasons were given.

Firstly, there was a view that the desk phone had advantages from a call routing and management perspective, as a result of the extensive functionality built into PBXs nowadays. This includes everything from switchboard operator monitoring and routing, through internal call management, to voice mail, hunt groups and other multi-user functionality.

But, by far the biggest reason given for mobile users having a fixed phone on their desk, however, was cost. The logic here is pretty simple - making land line calls is cheaper than cellular and even free for internal communication. It therefore makes sense for the mobile worker to restrict use of their cellular phone to occasions when they are actually mobile, and use their fixed line when sitting at their desk.

Nice theory.

The problem is that whilst this might make sense from a corporate cost control perspective, it doesn't make sense to many users. The chances are that if they are away from their desk for a significant amount of time during the average working week, those frequently needing to reach them learn not to bother calling their fixed line when there is a high risk of it not being picked up. The mobile will always be answered if the person is in a position to take a call so you might as well dial that first.

For many, the mobile phone has therefore become the default device for receiving incoming calls. To handle calls that still come into the desk phone, users simply forward their desk number to their mobile. Reasonable though this might seem, they usually don't realise that every call forwarded is treated as an outgoing call from the desk. This effectively means that the company pays for incoming calls to the desk at cellular rates.

Additional costs incurred in this manner are not the only way in which user behaviour leads to wasted money. Mobile workers with frequently used numbers programmed into their mobile often dial from that rather than picking up the fixed handset two feet away from them. If the person they are calling is a mobile colleague, we end up with the ludicrous situation of the company paying for a cellular to cellular call between two employees who might be sitting in the same building.

This and other mobile user behaviour that drives up costs in ways that are not necessarily fully appreciated was confirmed by the Quocirca study. The study also found that a third of companies were considering ditching the desk phone for mobile users as a result, though less than 10 per cent are actually making any moves in this direction.

One of the reasons organisations are holding back is the perceived cost of integrating mobile handsets into the corporate telephone network so they can become fully functional "mobile extensions". Related to this, and a point made by many EVUA members according to Vonk, is a general lack of understanding of the extent of the problem and true cost of ownership of both the desk phone and the mobile. Without these parameters tied down, it is hard to construct a meaningful business case, despite the advanced technology and creative services emerging from equipment manufacturers and service providers to encourage companies to go purely mobile.

Interestingly, though, Vonk sees a link between "fixed/mobile substitution", as the industry likes to call it, and much of the investigation of IP Telephony that is taking place in the corporate sector at the moment. In his view "Going purely cellular for mobile users will ease migration to VoIP. You have fewer VoIP handsets to purchase which leads to huge savings". He goes on to talk about a specific example, saying "One EVUA member migrated a large office to mobile only and VoIP simultaneously, avoiding the deployment of approximately 1,500 VoIP handsets that would otherwise have been needed. This was important because the handset cost was a very significant element of the VoIP investment as most of the infrastructure was already there".

This kind of example highlights the need for joined-up thinking as organisations consider how best to provide communications services to the workforce in the future, something underlined further by respondents telling us that smart data enabled cellular devices were accelerating the marginalisation of desk phones for mobile users. Whether it's mobile versus fixed, voice versus data or convergence versus substitution, the key is therefore to consider user requirements and think holistically about how best to meet them.

Copyright © 2004,

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