The city of Tampa has been using mobile unified communications features such as voicemail in e-mail, softphones and transferring calls to cell phones for several years, but now, two of the city’s assistant fire chiefs are taking mobile UC to the next level.
Eric Hayden, infrastructure services manager in the city’s Technology and Innovation Department, says the fire chiefs are testing the Jabber video client from Cisco Systems on their Apple iPad devices and desktop computers. The fire chiefs connect to other Jabber clients and dedicated video conferencing stations that infrastructure teams set up at the city’s 22 fire stations.
Hayden says the new Jabber clients all interconnect via Cisco video conferencing bridge equipment that the city deployed roughly seven years ago when it converged its voice and data networks with Cisco Unified Communications Manager. With the iPads, the fire chiefs can hold meetings on the go and collaborate more effectively. Hayden says unified communications can remove delays in public safety response. It also helps by sharing vital leadership communications in a timely manner across the entire jurisdiction. “Communications must be clear, rapid, on point and factual to minimize any chance of confusion,” Hayden says.
He adds that fire chiefs commanding situations in real time benefit from having the ability to share vital information with all parties. For example, an on-scene commander directing firefighters about to enter an unfamiliar building could use an iPad to bring up a building floor plan or show an important aerial image of the surrounding block on his computer and share it with the chief as if he were at the scene. The on-scene commander and chief could also communicate via Jabber with firefighters at the nearest station.
“The real-time collaboration between the person with the information and the person who will make the decisions is essential,” says Hayden. “A picture is worth a thousand words.”
These capabilities are part of an emerging trend in state and local IT, as localities turn to mobile UC. The technology offers major benefits for many state and local government agencies.
“The most compelling use cases of video are when people can show each other things using video, such as a radiologist showing a surgeon a patient's X-ray, an IT technical support rep showing someone how to fix a broken printer, or a firefighter being able to view the floor plan of a building that's on fire before entering the building,” says Blair Pleasant, co-founder of UCStrategies.
72% The percentage of U.S. workers who became remote or mobile by the end of 2012
“It's not about ‘talking heads’ and being able to see the person you're talking to, but it's these types of examples that will drive the use of video on mobile devices. Video is more immediate, and it's much easier to show someone what you're doing or looking at, rather than having to explain it. As we become more mobile and use smartphones and tablets, the ability to collaborate via video on these devices becomes critical.”
Besides the simplicity of use for Internet-based UC, a key advantage of Jabber, says Hayden, is that it complies with standard video conferencing protocols. As long as the client connects to a standard video conferencing system, users can expect a high-quality session and participate in one-on-one or multipoint video conferences. In years past, dedicated video conferencing stations could be prohibitively expensive. With Jabber and a fairly recent computer desktop, notebook or tablet, the cost to add a video conferencing client drops to less than $300 each.
Hayden cautions that the video chats via Jabber on iPads are only in a test phase, and he admits that many city workers still avoid video conferences in favor of face-to-face meetings. But he is optimistic that video chats will ultimately catch on, in the same way most people now use voice conferencing, voicemail, e-mail and web browsing.
Making UC an Option
Brenda Decker, CIO for the state of Nebraska, says her agency offers several UC options to state agencies. This gives administrators in the various departments the ability to deploy the technology that makes sense for their missions.
Decker says roughly 5,000 of the 16,000 state workers use instant messaging. Another 1,500 employees in various agencies use the “voicemail in e-mail” feature through Avaya equipment. The presence feature in Microsoft Office Communicator Services (OCS) has also been made available to every state agency, as well as video chat through OCS or Live Meeting. Agency adoption is an agency decision, says Decker.
“Some people use the video chat for peer-to-peer desktop sharing,” Decker says. “The Office of the CIO uses it for troubleshooting IT issues, and some of the other agencies use it to communicate for agency-related business. Our strategy all along has been to make the technology available. Agencies must make their own decisions related to deployment of this technology based on their mission and service to citizens, and not based on just the availability of the technology.”
4 Tips for Taking UC Mobile
Chris Silva, an industry analyst focusing on mobility at the Altimeter Group, offers four tips for organizations looking to take their unified communications systems mobile.
1: Figure out the business rules. Silva advises organizations to decide how to direct calls to the correct person well before deployment. For example, he suggests that when a help desk call comes in to customer support, the organization route the call to the next available customer support person with expertise in the area of the problem. An organization can route calls to the best available alternative by coding skills and expertise into staff directories or other knowledge bases. Using UC to improve efficiency quickly becomes as much a human capital issue as a tech one.
2: Make critical infrastructure decisions. Many organizations need to upgrade their infrastructures to support UC features such as the capability to locate users. In many cases, standard Wi-Fi networks designed for data access don’t provide the granularity of detail needed for such location services, so organizations should add more density to the Wi-Fi network and deploy a location server to route calls properly.
3: Train the staff. Create awareness across the staff of what UC technology can do and the appropriate uses for it.
4: Choose the right partner. Different providers — from giant IT corporations to smaller firms — offer a variety of options and price points. Research what’s available to find the best fit.