Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Energy Thought Summit - Another Takeaway - Education

I've been doing a few things around last week's Energy Thought Summit in Austin - some that's strictly smart grid, and some that weaves into the UC/collaboration space. Let me get to the latest item, and then I'll steer you to a few other things to provide the bigger picture.

I just wrote a post-ETS piece about education, and how this was a strong, but subtle theme running throughout the event. There's a big concern that not enough kids are going into the science and engineering disciplines - both in grade school and beyond - and this is the lifeblood driving the energy economy, especially among utilities. My article is running now on the ETS Insights portal, and if you're wondering where tomorrow's energy leaders will come from, I think you'll enjoy it.

Given my core focus communications tech, my perspectives on smart grid/energy are a bit different from those that live in that space 24/7. Since ETS is done now for a while, I thought it would be useful to pull all the various things I've been doing lately around that space to add a few layers to the above post.

First, from today's earlier blog post, my thoughts on smart grid parallels to the UC space on UCStrategies

Second, I wrote a series of articles leading up to ETS wearing my Community Advocate hat. Here's a summary with links to each post.

Finally, on a visual note, here's my post from ETS with some photos and first impressions.

Whatever you care to read, I greatly appreciate your time, and if this sparks any idea or dialog, I'm all ears.

UC Trends and Smart Grid Opportunities - Lessons for Both

I'm a bit of an odd fish, as I swim in two ponds that sometimes blend into one another. Communications tech is my main focus, but you may know that smart grid is another space I'm close to. I've given the backstory on that a few times lately, so if you still need that, just search a bit on my blog, or drop me a note.

Anyhow, last week, I wore my smart grid hat, and was involved with the Energy Thought Summit in Austin, TX. The details are in the post I'm about to steer you to, so I'll just move on. While many of the themes have direct implications for the energy economy, I sure saw a lot of parallels - and learning opportunities - for the UC space. A key reason why I'm active in smart grid is because the transformation challenges that utilities are now facing are very similar to what telcos have been going through ever since VoIP came along.

Not only do I see parallels, but also learning opportunities. It's clear to me that one way UC vendors can have success is by offering a deep set of applications for a specific vertical market. Smart grid - and the broader energy space - is a distinct market, and you won't succeed there unless you understand the opportunity.

If that piques your ineterest, then I think you'll enjoy my current contribution to the UCStrategies portal. It's running now, and while you're there, I welcome you to check my previous posts, as well as the rich content there from my fellow UC Experts.

To carry this a step further in the smart grid vein, watch for my next post here for another article of mine that's running now on the ETS portal.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Next Webinar - Hosted VoIP for SMBs

Got another Ziff Davis webinar coming up in a few weeks. This time around, the topic will be hosted VoIP for SMBs - "why the time is now". If you're an SMB, you don't have to look far these days to find options for adopting VoIP, but to get full value, you need to think things through. VoIP is an easy decision to justify, but it's important to have realistic expectations, especially when going with a hosted provider.

That's the ground I'll be covering during the webinar, and if this is for you, then please join us on April 21 at 2pm ET. All the details you need are here, including the registration form.

Friday, March 27, 2015

TIA’s Network of the Future Conference

I get to my share of industry events, and for a change am posting about one I’m not actually attending. I’ve been sharing ideas recently with TIA, and for their upcoming annual conference, I had an opportunity to moderate. This is an event I’d like to support, but cannot get to due to a schedule conflict. I’ve had a few of these conflicts this year, but that’s out of my control, and you just have to make choices and move on.
So, the next best thing is to say a few things about their event – what I’ll be missing, but what you might catch if you end up attending. Their Network of the Future Conference runs in Dallas from June 2-4, and the lineup is quite strong. Maybe a bit dry for my tastes, as there’s a strong focus on policy and regulation, but that comes with the territory from being in a semi-regulated industry. With that said, here’s an overview of what the conference will be covering.
To address the Network of the Future theme, the conference has three main tracks. First is Future of Wireless, which is self-explanatory. LTE and WiFi will be on the agenda, but so will 5G, so there will be a lot of focus on what’s coming as carriers move to all-IP networks. This will include NFV, small cells and IoT, along with an application-centric approach for developing new services.
The second track is Leveraging the Network, and is focused on new revenues and services. This is where they’ll be examining UC and collaboration, and is the track I would have been involved in if I was able to attend. In addition, they’ll be looking at opportunities in vertical markets like healthcare and retail, and what they call the Industrial Internet of Things. IoT is clearly a big theme across this event - another indication that mobile carriers see their future being about data and not voice.
Finally, the third track is titled Digital Foundations, and backs things up to core network needs instead of the more glamorous world of high-touch applications. To support those applications, this track is about infrastructure issues - Big Data, virtualization, edge computing, data centers, etc.
Beyond those tracks, they have a half day dedicated to policy, and the highlight will be hearing what both Verizon and AT&T have to say about Net Neutrality, probably the biggest issue facing U.S. carriers today. They certainly have a vested interest to protect, and it sure will be interesting to see how they map out and defend their position. Complementing that will be an interview with FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, so Thursday should be a pretty interesting morning.
Also of note – at least for me – will be a couple of sessions around food. First is a cybersecurity breakfast, with speakers from Intel Security and Brink’s. Sure will be interesting to hear these two views – one from the virtual world and one from the physical world – but the threats are just as real for both. Second is a luncheon focused on IoT, and it will great to hear how carriers are thinking about this. No speakers have been announced, but the session includes an M2M showcase, featuring demos from vendors supporting the oneM2M standard.
Finally, the conference is hosting a startup competition. They’re looking for entrants from the ICT space, with an emphasis on things like cybersecurity, data centers, IoT and cloud computing. If you think this could be a good forum for your company, there is still time, as entries close on April 30.
That’s what I’ll be missing, but that shouldn’t get in the way of you attending. For more detail on all these highlights and more, I’ll leave it to you to check out the website and make up your own mind.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Energy Thought Summit - Quick Update

I've been in Austin since Monday night, and the last day of the Energy Thought Summit is underway now. The Zpryme folks have built on the momentum from last year's inaugural ETS, and the content has been really solid here right from the start. This is very much a thought leader summit - top people here from across the energy sector, both speaking and in the audience, with lots of good dialog all around.

I'm just going to post some photos here for now, and over the next couple of days, I'll post my takeaways, both here and wearing my ETS Community Advocate hat on the ETS Insights portal, where I've been posting since January.

Now, this is how you open a conference, Austin-style. These guys were great - too bad they just did a couple of tunes and disappeared shortly after. Most conferences I attend have blaring rock music piped in to keep things lively, but I'll take these guys any day.
Newly-minted ETS President, Andrew Johnston wearing his MC hat
Doyle Beneby, Pres/CEO of CPS Energy, giving the opening keynote. Great presentation about the challenges facing utilities. Sobering stuff, but plenty of silver linings.
ETS Chairman Andres Carvallo leads the panel session on IoT and smart cities
Direct Energy CEO Badar Khan sharing what his company is doing to engage customers via technology, to proactively make energy relevant to them. This is the vision utilities need to transform themselves into customer-centric entities, and if a company of this size can do it, there's plenty of hope for the industry.
This was the highlight for me - and perhaps everyone else. Drew Johnston with the amazing Dr. John Goodenough - the father of the lithium-ion battery, still going strong at 92!
Dr. Massoud Amin - another great presentation, this time, his 2020 industry outlook. Congrats as well, for being the recipient of Zpryme's first Thought Leader of the Year Award - and well deserved, for sure.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Energy Thought Summit, Austin - Final Shout-Out and Recap of my Posts

Travel plans are set for Austin, and ETS15 is around the corner. I'll be flying down on Monday, and the precon events kick off Tuesday morning. If you only know me as a tech/telecom analyst following VoIP, UC, collaboration etc., then you don't have the whole story. Just search my blog and you'll find lots there about my smart grid hat which I've been wearing for many years.

This may seem like a disparate space, but in fact, the disruption underway in energy with big, regulated utilities is going to play out exactly like telecom has over the past 10 years or so. There's huge overlap with communications technologies, and if you don't see that, then check out how big the smart grid/smart cities opportunity is for the likes of Cisco, MSFT, IBM, Google, etc.

With that said, I'm an Advisor to Austin-based Zpryme Research, and have been actively involved with both their thriving market research practice in this space, along with ETS, which is quickly evolving into a franchise-type concept that brings top thought leaders together to share and create new visions for the energy economy.

So, here's a last call for ETS15, and whether you just want to see what it's all about or register to attend, please check out the website.

I'll be quite visible throughout the event, and over the past few weeks I've also served as the Community Advocate to help promote ETS15. A key part of that has been developing content for the ETS Insights portal, and I've authored a number of articles there to give readers a sense of what to expect at the conference. For the record, you can review my posts here, and I hope you spend some time at the portal where you can see the rest of our content.

Smart Transportation - Another Sign of What's Coming at ETS15

Jon Arnold's Q&A with ETS Chairman, Andres Carvallo

ETS Q&A with Direct Energy

Two Doctors in the House for ETS15 - Dr. Goodenough and Dr. Amin

ETS Precon Day - Three More Reasons to Join us in Austin

ETS Q&A with Scott Jacobs, Generate Capital

Q&A with ETS President, Andrew Johnston

What Role will Utilities Play with Consumers and Smart Grid?

ETS Speaker Updates

ETS Preview - my Q&A with Zpryme's Jason Rodriguez

What to Expect at ETS15

ETS - More Than a Conference

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Verizon’s Virtual Communications Express – Big can be Beautiful too

I do my share of briefings with both vendors and service providers, and sometimes there’s a good storyline my followers may not be expecting to hear. My recent briefing with Verizon is one such case, as their VirtualCommunications Express – VCE – is showing how big carriers can compete in the SMB space when it comes to hosted VoIP.
Verizon is hardly alone among Tier 1 incumbents in feeling alienated by SMBs, as they historically have been low priority customers, often bound to their carrier by long-term contracts. This is not a recipe for success when real competition emerges, and many SMBs have happily jumped over to cablecos, CLECs and even OTTs. With the rise of VoIP, and more recently cloud-based variations, this giant market space has opened up big-time, putting all incumbents on the defensive.
While the SMB market is a huge Greenfield opportunity for competitors, this is very much now a protect-the-base scenario for incumbents. There’s a lot of business in play, and the likes of Verizon have to decide whether the SMB market is worth fighting for; and if so, they need a better game plan.
My briefing with Verizon- joined by Polycom folks as well – tells me that do have a better game plan now, and that’s what this post is about. As with any hosted VoIP offering, there are two pieces to consider – the product being sold, and the company behind the product - and I got a good sense of both in the lead-up to this post.
The product
VCE is Verizon’s hosted offering, and it’s more of a rich VoIP service than a UC platform, but that’s fine for what most SMBs need. Their point of reference is generally still TDM replacement, so the value proposition needs to be pretty telephony-centric. It has all the features you’d expect when migrating to VoIP, and they do a good job articulating the business value. The benchmark is TDM, so the flexibility of VoIP plays well with SMBs, along with the enhanced features they may not be expecting.
Good examples include auto attendant, multi-party calling – six way (they don’t call it conferencing, but that’s another topic), soft phone support, inter-office extension dialing, self-configured on-hold messaging, simultaneous ring, mobile integration (Apple and Android), and visual voicemail. Any and all of these are a step up from TDM, and Verizon seems to be hitting the right notes with what’s important for SMBs.
Being hosted strikes another chord, and they do a good job stressing the value of business continuity. I don’t think any SMB would question Verizon’s ability to do this, and on this count, their scale does give them a leg up on smaller competitors. On that note, they can comfortably cite the scale of their network and ability to provide carrier-class quality as built-in advantages that come with being an incumbent. The same can also be said for their technical support resources, allowing SMBs to get the same caliber of service as enterprise customers that Verizon caters so well to.
Stepping back – and bringing Polycom into the picture – VCE is being marketed as a communications solution, bringing together the quality of Verizon’s network, the richness of hosted VoIP, and the state of the art suite of IP phones from Polycom. In addition to a variety of SMB-friendly models in their VVX series – all of which support HD – they also offer two models of their SoundStation conferencing phones. Taken together, then, this is not a one-size-fits-all point solution, giving SMBs – and channel partners – a nice set of options to choose from.
Overall, by being hosted, VCE is pitched as a simple solution that’s easy to deploy, scale and use. This really is table stakes, so there’s nothing new there for the SMB market. The twist that I think will really appeal to SMBs is that no contract is required. This may be the norm for OTT VoIP services, but not from a Tier 1 carrier that can truly provide end-to-end QoS.
SMBs are conditioned to expect incumbents to require long, locked-in commitments, but VCE is a welcome about-face. To get carrier-grade quality and great phones without lock-in should be a no-brainer for a lot of SMBs, especially when considering the TCO advantages of hosted VoIP. Long-term, TCO claims may be dubious for cloud services, but SMBs aren’t thinking five years out when it comes to VoIP.
The company – and a happy customer
For the most part, VoIP is VoIP, and all hosted providers can offer something comparable to VCE. So, what would make an SMB stick with Verizon, or switch from someone else? While CLECs face the fundamental challenge of getting SMBs to know about them and trust them, everybody knows who Verizon is. However, most people associate the company with enterprise customers or mobile services. Fair enough, but they are also the incumbent telco for many SMBs, and that’s the market they are trying to serve with VCE. In that regard, there’s a big branding challenge in play here, as they need SMBs to view Verizon as being the right partner when it comes to telephony and communications services.
I’m not saying that Verizon has been totally successful, but they clearly have learned how to support SMBs, and that’s a story worth telling. To do that, I got a first-hand account by interviewing a VCE customer, NYC-based 163rd Street Improvement Council. This is a social services agency in the South Bronx, and truly is a great example of big meeting small with great results all around.
I spoke with Executive Director Cassandra Perry, and in many ways, her Council was a typical SMB Verizon customer. They were locked into a long-term contract, not getting much support, and were overpaying for services they didn’t need. On a more practical level, their telephony system was totally centralized, so if HO had a problem, none of the satellite offices had service either.
Their situation was a bit different, as their operations were largely wiped out by a fire, so they had to start fresh. Fortunately, this happened at a time when Verizon has become more customer-centric, and the results have been excellent. The turnaround started with their Verizon rep really listening to their needs, and from there it was clear that VCE was the right solution. The cloud-based offering keeps their costs down, ensures business continuity, and allows those satellite offices to stay in service regardless of what happens at HO.
More importantly was the sense that Cassandra’s needs were being heard. This was a big change from the historical relationship, and really took down the barrier between a small customer trying to get attention, and the impersonal nature of a big operator. Once those needs were addressed, there was also the peace of mind that comes from the reliability of a Tier 1 network, along with Verizon’s ability to troubleshoot their network and ensure service uptime.
This is key, as Cassandra noted they don’t have an IT department, and it was great to know that Verizon was even able to detect network problems before they hit her LAN. They weren’t getting this level of responsiveness before, and it’s a big reason why they’re happy with Verizon today.
Hope for incumbents and hope for SMBs
You don’t often come across a level playing field like this, and it’s great to see how an incumbent can align so well with an SMB customer. If incumbents like Verizon want to protect that customer base, they have to do business differently, and Cassandra’s story is a textbook example. It starts with listening to customers and developing an offering that speaks to their needs. VCE certainly seems built along those lines, and the rest really comes down to the relationships and ease of doing business.
When those are looked after, Verizon will keep its share of customers. Otherwise, when you hold customers to long-term contracts, sell them more than they need, not be responsive to service requests, limit their options for features and endpoints, etc., that’s when you live up to the bad reputation of an incumbent. Of course, if you really don’t care about SMBs, that’s an easy hand to play, but incumbents now know that SMBs are good business, and to hold off the competition, they need to do more of what Verizon is doing with VCE.

Note - this post has been sponsored by Verizon, but in-kind only. The content is solely mine, and no remuneration of any kind has been provided for this post.