What is Unified Communications – UC?

You may have come across the term Unified Communications before. It is often shortened to Unified Comms and is also sometimes represented by its acronym UC. The problem with umbrella terminologies is that they make it harder for people to agree on a specific scope in terms of what is included and what isn’t. If you were to run an online search for a UC solution, you would likely come across a few different flavours of unified communications that might make it challenging to find a specific definition. However, a typical UC solution can offer you a telephone system that is integrated with your other communication tools such as mobile phone, email service, online chats (IM), audio & video conferencing, fax services and various others.

Let’s drop the jargon a little bit more and talk about the word ‘integrate’ to understand it in plain English. So, if your telephone system is integrated with your mobile phone, it basically means that they are both connected to a common account, and they can both ‘talk’ to each other. So, for example, if you cannot take a call on your fixed phone, you may still be able to receive it through your mobile phone or get a voice message delivered to the common voicemail account.

What is a unified communication system?

Unified Communication or UC is an umbrella term representing a system that integrates or combines the various communication tools and capabilities within a company, e.g. telephone system, mobile phone, messengers etc. Examples of the services that UC systems enable are audio and video conferencing, instant messages, call centre solutions, electronic fax services, single phone number on mobile and fixed (FMC), CRM integration, call recording, native dialling capability on a mobile phone so that all regular calls go through the UC platform. UC aims to provide a consistent experience to customers across all communication devices, apps, and other end-points. An end-point in unified communications could be a mobile phone, a fixed phone, or just an app that a customer may be using to access their account.

What are the benefits of unified communications?

The benefits of Unified Communications are centred around the flexibility and harmonisation it offers to businesses in addressing their communication needs. It allows businesses to communicate with their customers through multiple inter-connected communication tools that keep all the communication in one place. On the other hand, it also allows the internal staff or employees within a business to work more collaboratively, making them more productive. Productivity is one of the key values offered by unified communications solutions. In a nutshell, the benefits may include:

  • Higher productivity of staff working within company premises
  • Higher productivity of staff who work remotely by giving them access to purpose built collaboration tools and devices (e.g. call centre agents)
  • Cost reduction, especially for businesses with an international presence as employees, can benefit from using VoIP calls instead of traditional phone systems and can also work remotely
  • Improved security because all communication channels and devices are connected to the same overall secure communication system

Who is the customer of Unified Communications?

Unified Communications solutions are for business customers and include customer segments like SoHo (Small Office Home Office), SMB (Small and Medium Business) and large Enterprise customers. UC needs for businesses differ depending on how small, or large they are, so solutions from many vendors target the individual customer segments. Solutions can also vary depending on which sector the businesses are operating in. For example, a plumbing company with 2 people will have very different UC needs than an IT consulting company with 50 people.

Is UC a VoIP service?

Unified Communications and VoIP are interrelated but not the same. UC or Unified Communications is an umbrella terminology that includes a suite of collaboration tools and devices that may use a range of different technologies to communicate with each other. VoIP stands for Voice over IP, and it is an enabler technology that can support voice communication within a UC system. However, VoIP is not the only technology within a UC system, e.g. there may be cases when a UC service provider may want their customers to use VoIP only on laptops and use traditional calling methods when calls are made or received by mobile phones. With mobile phones, voice calls can take place over the circuit-switched part of the network in 2G and 3G networks. In 4G LTE networks, the call is facilitated by the packet-switched part of the network through VoLTE (Voice over LTE). VoLTE works on 5G also and is not limited to 4G only. 5G networks also have a Voice over NR or Voice over 5G technology that works on fully end-to-end 5G networks (Standalone).

How does unified communication work?

Unified Communication allows all communication systems within a company or business to work together by integrating them into a single platform. As a result, all communication/collaboration services such as landline phone calls, mobile phone calls, text messages, instant messages, electronic faxes, emails, audio conferencing and video conferencing services can be connected to the same platform. These services can then be added to individual employee accounts to enable access. Each employee account in unified communications is referred to as “Seat”, so if a small business has 5 employees, they can buy 5 seats from a UC service provider to allow all 5 employees to benefit from UC services. There are also different levels of accounts, including employee accounts, department-level admin accounts and company level admin accounts. Terminologies may differ depending on which UC service provider you speak to.

One of the main features in UC has been the fixed-mobile convergence, often referred to as FMC, which allows both the mobile and fixed phones to be connected to the same account. This gives additional flexibility to customers and makes it easier for them to avoid missing important calls. Typically, the fixed-phone in a UC solution is an IP phone, so the communication takes place using the Voice over IP (VoIP) technology. It can, however, be a strategic decision for the service provider to choose whether they want all their calls to be VoIP based. For example, if a mobile operator offers a UC solution, voice calls that are mainly circuit-switched are their key revenue source. So a mobile operator may decide not to dilute those revenues and create a solution that offers a combination of VoIP and traditional voice calls.

When you look at the unified communications industry, you may come across vendors that fall within different categories. IT and telecommunication services are coming closer and have already converted to a certain degree. This convergence of IT and telecommunications has encouraged both IT and telecom vendors to offer UC services. As they are both coming from different angles, they often have different approaches. At a high level, you are likely to come across the following two approaches:

  • Telephone service providers – The providers of traditional telephony or PBX solutions who later added the collaboration part, and used their PSTN connectivity as the key differentiator.
  • Collaboration app providers – The providers of online collaboration apps who later added the PSTN connectivity to their solutions and used their superior ‘online’ expertise (e.g. more user-friendly and collaborative apps) as the differentiator.

Here are some helpful downloads

Thank you for reading this post, I hope it helped you in developing a better understanding of cellular networks. Sometimes, we need some extra support especially when preparing for a new job, or studying a new topic, or maybe just buying a new phone. Whatever you are trying to do, here are some downloads that can help you:

Students & fresh graduates: If you are just starting, the complexity of the cellular industry can be a bit overwhelming. But don’t worry, I have created this FREE ebook so you can familiarise yourself with the basics like 3G, 4G etc. As a next step, check out the latest edition of the same ebook with more details on 4G & 5G networks with diagrams. You can then read Mobile Networks Made Easy which explains the network nodes e.g. BTS, MSC, GGSN etc.

Professionals: If you are an experienced professional but new to mobile communications, it may seem hard to compete with someone who has a decade of experience in the cellular industry. But not everyone who works in this industry is always up to date on the bigger picture and the challenges considering how quickly the industry evolves. The bigger picture comes from experience which is why I’ve carefully put together a few slides to get you started in no time. So if work in sales, marketing, product, project or any other area of business where you need a high-level view, Introduction to Mobile Communications can give you a quick start. Also, here are some templates to help you prepare your own slides on product overview and product roadmap.

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