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Is business ready for data convergence? Integrated technologies popping up everywhere.

WHILE CONSUMERS ARE still trying to figure out how to use all the gizmos that arrived under the Christmas tree, digital service providers are announcing more steps in the mind-boggling process called digital convergence.

On Jan. 3, SBC Communications Inc. of San Antonio announced a joint venture with 2Wire Inc. of San Jose, Calif., that would combine satellite TV programming, digital video recording, video on demand and Internet content.

Think caller ID and e-mail on the TV screen or programming the TV to record shows from a computer or a cell phone.

This technology will be integrated with another service SBC released earlier this year, SBC Unified Communications, which allows customers to check all their messages--cellular and wire-line voice mail, e-mail, fax notifications, pages--in a single in-box that could be on their computer, phone or personal digital 'assistant.

Comcast Corp. of Philadelphia made convergence news last week when it announced it will offer Voice over Internet Protocal (VoIP) service in 20 markets this year and to 40 million subscribers by 2006. No word yet on when Arkansans will be offered the service, which is essent.ially phone service over the Internet.

Some analysts wonder if the offerings are too much too soon.

Phillip Swan, president of TVPredictions.com, has written that SBC's bundling of TV and Internet will fail and predicted the company could pull the plug on that division by the end of 2007.

Comcast has gotten criticism for its voiP service's price tag: $40 when purchased in conjunction with Comcast cable TV and high-speed cable Internet service or $55 by itself. Vonage, which offers VoIP service in Little Rock and northwest Arkansas, charges as low as $25 a month.

The future of data convergence is here--in fact, the technology that allows customers to get voice, data and Internet on one cable has been around since the late 1980s. And wireless technology is more than 25 years old. Getting businesses and consumers to make the investment to combine their networks or sign on with a company like SBC that already offers converged networks is another story.

Slowly But Surely

Little Rock's Allied Technology Group, which plans, designs and configures networks for many financial institutions, has focused mostly on voice and data convergence.

Jerry Craven, one of the company's three partners, takes a practical approach to data convergence: build networks that provide solutions today while including the building blocks for the services it might need tomorrow.

Craven, 32, has a youthful appearance and beams like a boy talking about his science fair project when he describes the business services that data convergence has made possible.

Here's one of his examples: A business person picks up the phone to place an order with a supplier. The customer's phone number is recognized and routed to the representative handling that account. Immediately, the rep's desktop PC displays that customer's history of calls, a list of the customer's products and previous inquiries.

Here's another: When a company adds a new employee, an IT staffer can set up the new guy's telephone, e-mail and voice mail with one program. He doesn't even need to be at the office to do it.

"On the same network, phones and other applications can talk to each other," Craven said. And that allows information to flow faster. Fewer applications, less work.

Craven said, "It's a matter of bringing services and devices together so they can interact with each other."

Founded in 2000 by Craven, Brad Cicero and Matt Humphries, Allied Technology Group has worked on the networks of OneBanc, Moore Stephens Frost Financial Group, the Brinkley School District and others.

The company's work with convergence has been mostly with data and voice.

"The need for voice communication and data communication is much more obvious and apparent than video communication," Craven said. "(Video communication) is not emerging as fast because it's more of a luxury in business."

But it could: The same networks Allied puts together for data and voice convergence could be used for video.

"We're very close to seeing video-calling happening a lot more," he said.

Other companies' clients, however, have already found plenty of utility in video communication.

Since 1991, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences at Little Rock has been making a compelling case for converged video communications. That's how long it has been sharing interactive video resources with affiliated hospitals and clinics in Arkansas, using T1 transmission lines.

In 2003, SBC and UAMS launched an interactive video network linking experts at UAMS to obstetricians and their patients around the state and around the clock.

UAMS contracted SBC to equip the network.

"Physicians and staff could see a baby moving and talk to the doctor and patient just as realistically as if they were in the room," SBC spokesman Ted Wagnon said.

Past And Future

Multimedia home entertainment offerings sound trivial compared with saving babies' lives, but SBC is making a huge investment in a project they think will revolutionize the way people watch TV. And surf the Internet. And talk on the phone. Actually, the plan is to seamlessly integrate them all.

The telecom's foray into a unified TV-PC experience is not the industry's first. In 1997, Microsoft spent $425 million on WebTV with the hope customers would fawn over the idea of getting on the Internet via their television. But because Microsoft offered few upgrades to the dial-up set-top boxes, interest quickly waned.

Recently the company said it would give the simple concept another try, this time with MSN TV2, another dial-up service that plugs into the TV and the phone jack.

More notable, however, is Micro sort's plan to get into digital programming. Microsoft chairman Bill Gates spoke recently at Las Vegas' Consumer Electronics Show and titillated technophiles with the promise of TV programming on cell phones and handheld computers.

Of course, the promise of such converged technologies might still have some bugs in it. During Gates' presentation, his Windows Media Center PC froze up and would not respond to his remote control.

Later in the presentation, another Microsoft presenter suffered a similar gaffe. While trying to customize a race car for a video game that will be released in April, his computer also froze, and the screen read "out of system memory."

SBC's home entertainment unit has also received criticism that it might prove to be too much of a technical headache.

"Clearly convergence presents a challenge to the manufacturer, to the provider and to the consumer. There's a continual learning curve," said Wagnon, the SBC spokesman. "But if it's well done and priced right, consumers will respond."

Then there's the question of whether or not consumers will respond to the interconnectivity of all their devices.

Wagnon said, "Consumers increasingly want to be able to look to one provider and have the convenience of fewer in-boxes, fewer remotes, fewer appliances, fewer devices to be connected."

SBC will roll out its set-top box late this year, although perhaps not to Arkansas customers until as late as 2006. And while Wagnon recognizes past convergence efforts have seen some false starts, the availability of higher-speed Internet and larger bandwidth will make SBC's more remarkable.

Today, high-speed broadband Internet access is available to more than half of all Arkansans.

Looking farther down the road, Wagnon does some titillating of his own. He describes a scenario of constant connection: a user on the Internet on a laptop at home gets in a car -presumably not driving--but stays connected through his mobile phone, then gets to the airport where he can continue to surf the Web via a Wi-Fi hotspot, all the while not having to log on and off.

Allied Technology Group's Craven has also had visions of the future, when business travelers will need only a PDA for all their communication.

Both Wagnon and Craven believe their companies will continue to play a large role in maintaining networks for business customers even after IT staffs become more well-versed in the technology.

Actually, Craven said he hopes more people learn how to use the technology. "We need everybody to gain skills to keep up with demand," he said.
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Title Annotation:Technology
Comment:Is business ready for data convergence? Integrated technologies popping up everywhere.(Technology)
Author:Taulbee, Chip
Publication:Arkansas Business
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 17, 2005
Words:1352
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