IT Expo recap: Small providers could cast a big shadow in UC markets

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Samantha Bookman, FierceTelecom

If there was an unofficial theme to last week's ITEXPO in Austin, it was probably "better, faster, cheaper." The phrase was repeated often enough in keynotes and panel sessions that attendees were probably mumbling it in their sleep. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, particularly for the mid-sized providers and small- to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) on which the conference focused.

Exhibitors at TMCNet's tightly scheduled show focused on optimization techniques across the IP spectrum. Workshops like MPLS University focused on broadband and managed services options for SMBs. And the Expo capped off with its sixth StartupCamp showcase, in which four entrepreneurs "sold" their products in 1-minute pitches to a panel of judges.

The feeling that the VoIP segment of the telecommunications industry is still that low-overhead, easy-to-start-up business opportunity hovered in the air at the event, though a lineup of much more established providers like 8x8 (Nasdaq: EGHT) and Sonus (Nasdaq: SONS) were prominent on the show floor. The term "cloud" was being thrown around like Monopoly money as exhibitors worked to define exactly what the concept meant to them and their customers.

Underneath that feeling of opportunity lay a few troubling undercurrents. Technical issues like VoIP provisioning--still not an easy task for either providers or end customers--still plague the segment. Unified communications is hampered by multiple standards that make tasks like videoconferencing between two companies difficult or impossible. And the whole idea of cloud-based managed services, so exciting in concept, could be at risk if metered bandwidth becomes the norm among major ISPs, according to Terry Hedden of Infinity Technology Solutions, in an MPLS University session.

But IP solutions have rapidly grown in scale and scope, and this conference was a representative sample of the potential of smaller providers to compete in the unified communications landscape--something Itay Rosenfeld, chief commercial officer of Voxbone, a provider of DID (direct inward dialing) numbers and related services based in Belgium, was quick to point out.

"I don't like to call them mid-market," he said of the companies in attendance or being targeted at the show. "They're small, but in five years the whole thing could be reversed," with those smaller companies dominating the market. He added later that mid-market companies like hosted PBX providers reach SMBs directly, "which are 60 percent of the (U.S.) economy."

With large, multi-site corporations like FedEx looking at more cost-effective, but highly robust applications to drive some or all of their critical communications processes, Rosenfeld's view of the mid-sized hosted services provider of today becoming tomorrow's giant service provider could be very accurate. --Sam